Flower girl

Meet the intrepid genius behind Annie's Annuals
Paul Gilbert

Nestled among dilapidated warehouses in an industrial area of Richmond, California, is a veritable garden of Eden filled with rare and unusual annuals and perennials. Welcome to the treasure trove that is Annie's Annuals, whose plants have long been the envy of serious flower gardeners.

Owner Annie Hayes began the business in her Richmond backyard in 1989. At that time, she was working as a plant buyer and demonstration-bed planter at Berkeley Horticultural Nursery. "I would dream of plants," she recalls. "I knew I wanted to sell plants in the green state―before they bloom―because they grow so much better in the garden." But, she found, nobody would buy seedlings like that. "So I had to make identification signs with pictures of the plants in bloom." Sales bloomed too. After 16 years, Hayes says she is still an "insatiable plant lover: I think of myself as a flower floozy."

Taking a greenhouse tour with Hayes is like hanging out with an overgrown kid who's barely able to contain her passion for exotic, heirloom, and hard-to-find species. "I love discovering new things," she says. "Sometimes it takes two or three years to locate seeds of new varieties, but it's like finding gold."

With more than 3,000 varieties in her inventory, Hayes and her staff never stop hunting for exciting additions and have several hundred new introductions for 2005. The plants are sold at her nursery in Richmond; at retail nurseries from Carmel to Arcata, California; and by mail.

"We thought no one would ever come to this neighborhood," says Hayes, waving her arm toward a sea of vibrant young plants. "But we've discovered that if we grow it, they will come. Our customers tell us that our flowers finish their gardens."

If you can't visit the nursery in person, take a virtual tour on its website, which is loaded with gorgeous photographs of most plants. You can also use the website to order 4-inch plants for delivery via UPS ground service in California and second-day air elsewhere.

INFO: Annie's Annuals ( www.anniesannuals.com or 510/215-1326) is open 10-4 Wed-Sun; visit the website or call for directions and information on events such as the Spring Party (Apr 8-10) and the Mother's Day Party (May 7-8).

Annie's standout blooms

Alcea rugosa. Russian hollyhock has single primrose yellow flowers. Perennial. To 5 feet tall.

Antirrhinum majus 'Double Azalea Apricot'. Snapdragon has apricot-gold double flowers with tutti-frutti fragrance. Annual. To 3 feet.

Nemesia cheiranthus. Yellow-and-white blooms resemble cartoon character Bart Simpson. Annual. To 15 inches.

Papaver 'Drama Queen'. Spring-blooming poppy has frilled ruby-and-purple petals. Annual. To 3-4 feet.

Phylica plumosa (P. pubescens). South African native has feathery buff-gold blooms. Shrub. To 5 feet.

Pycnostachys urticifolia. South African plant has cobalt blue flowers. Perennial. To 6 feet.

Roemeria refracta. Asian corn poppy has bright red, single flowers with bobbing golden anthers. Annual. To 12 inches.

Tropaeolum majus 'Margaret Long'. Rare nasturtium has double peach blossoms. Annual. To 12 inches.

Ursinia anethoides 'Solar Fire'. Single daisies have golden orange petals around a central maroon ring. Annual. To 15 inches.