Pot Stars: 8 Top Plants for Your Container Centerpiece

Some of the best summer flower pots start with an eye-grabbing plant in the center.

These so-called “thriller” plants turn heads in a variety of ways – stout size, big and colorful leaves, showy flowers, unusual form or texture, or all of the above.

Starting with a pot star sets the stage for a supporting cast of “fillers” and “spillers” that work together to give a summer-long show to decks, porches, and anywhere else spot color is needed in the landscape.

Here are eight worthy annual plants to consider for your pot’s leading role:

Toucan® Yellow Canna Lily Canna generalis

Container planting featuring Toucan® Yellow Canna Lily Canna generalis. Image courtesy Proven Winners®

Cannas (Canna x generalis and cultivars)

Cannas aren’t far behind elephant ears with their large, upward-facing, lance-like leaves, plus they add weeks of lily-like flowers to the show.

Most varieties bloom in warm shades of orange or red, although some cannas bloom in pink and other softer shades.

Cannas with dark and/or variegated foliage are particular eye-grabbers, such as the popular Tropicanna® with its dark striped leaves and orange flowers and ‘Australia’ with its nearly black leaves and red flowers.

Compact two- to three-footers are best suited for pots, such as the award-winning orange-red bloomer ‘South Pacific Scarlet’ and the Cannova® series, which comes in yellow, peach, red/gold, orange, red, and creamy-white.

Cannas flower best in full sun.

This container features Coffee Cups Elephant's Ear Colocasia esculenta. Image courtesy Proven Winners®

Container planting featuring Coffee Cups Elephant's Ear Colocasia esculenta

Elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta)

It’s hard to beat this tropical tuber for big, flamboyant foliage – heart-shaped leaves the size of, well, elephant’s ears.

Particularly showy are varieties with glossy, jet-black leaves, such as ‘Black Magic’ and Royal Hawaiian® ‘Black Coral,’ and variegated forms, such as the new Royal Hawaiian® ‘Waikiki’ with its green, cream, and rose leaves.

Elephant-ear plants grow about three feet tall in full sun to part shade. Give them a big pot.

Hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella)

Tropical types of hibiscus are best known for their glamorous big blooms, most often in red or gold, for weeks in summer. The bushy plants grow two to three feet tall.

‘Panama Red’ and ‘Panama Bronze’ are two particularly nice varieties that don’t bloom much but make up for it with dark, cut leaves that contrast well with most any flower.

Hibiscus flowers best in full sun.

A container with Queen Tut™ Dwarf papyrus.

A container with Queen Tut™ Dwarf papyrus. Photo courtesy Proven Winners®

Dwarf papyrus or umbrella grass (Cyperus species)

Interesting form and texture are what make these grassy-like plants star-worthy. Aquatic perennials in their native habitats, papyrus and umbrella grass send up stems topped with arching, narrow leaves (technically bracts) that spread out like umbrellas.

Queen Tut™ and Baby Tut® are two compact, widely available two-footers that are well suited for containers.

Plants grow in full sun to part shade.

Ti plant (Cordyline species)

Ti plants are another warm-climate native that make good centerpieces for their form (narrow and upright) and their colorful foliage.


The bladed foliage comes in colors that range from green to peachy-orange to chocolate. It’s also a plant that does well as a houseplant, so repot it and move it inside over winter.

Ti plants grow in full sun to part shade.

Helianthus annuus SunBelievable™.

Helianthus annuus SunBelievable™. Orthosie / iStock / Getty Images Plus

“Thousand-bloom” sunflowers (Helianthus annuus hybrids)

If it’s super-showy blooms you’re after, check out the new hybrid sunflower varieties that produce cheery gold or gold-red flowers all summer long.

The flowers on these new varieties are smaller than traditional sunflowers (still nearly the diameter of tennis balls, though), and the plants are shorter than classic sunflowers (container-friendly three-foot-tall bushes instead of towering six- to eight-footers).

However, the flower production is much heavier with plants capable of churning out a thousand blooms before frost ends the season.

Three examples are Suncredible®, SunBelievable™, and Sunfinity™.

Sunflowers bloom best in full sun.

Persian shield featured in a container planting.

Persian shield featured in an outdoor container. Photo courtesy Proven Winners®

Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyerianus)

For shady spots, this tropical sports one of the most beautiful foliage blends of any plant – a mix of green, silver, and metallic purple. The lance-like leaves have veins that are almost black.

Persian shield plants grow as bushy uprights about two feet tall.

The best leaf color is in shade or sites with morning sun and afternoon shade.

Mandevilla Sun Parasol® Pink.

Mandevilla Sun Parasol® Pink. Photo courtesy Suntory

Mandevilla (Mandevilla species and cultivars)

And finally, for a different twist for your pot centerpiece, try growing a mandevilla vine up an obelisk, narrow trellis, or similar support anchored into the pot.

Mandevillas are tropical vines that produce tubular flowers throughout most of summer. The vines twist themselves up the support to give color at eye level.

‘Alice du Pont’ is an oldie-but-goodie pink bloomer that’s widely sold, while the Sun Parasol® series gives a more compact choice in bloom colors that include red, pink, white, and yellow.

Mandevillas flower best in full sun to light shade.

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