Tuesday, October 6, 2009

In Bloom: fall blooming perennials

It is true, fall is finally upon us here in the northeast. But that is not to say that there are not still lots of fabulous things in bloom these days. Surely if you have taken a woodland walk recently you have spotted various Aster doing their thing. Out in the country where I grew up I am sure the fields are aglow with Solidago (golden rod) and Eupatorium, that tall white weed that us horticulturists know the moths and butterflies love this time of year. The buds on the perennial Chrysanthemum are about to burst, but maybe not for another couple weeks or more, reminding us that even when it is too cold for us to be out in the garden it is anything but inactive. Some of the plants in bloom this time of year really speak to me.
This is Anemone x hybrida 'Alba', commonly known as a white Japanese anemone.
A spectacular plant for sun to part shade the foliage usually only reaches about 3-4' tall but the flowers get up to 5' and seem to float in big glorious clusters above the autumn garden. If you allow the spent flower heads to remain on the plant and go to seed you will see they eventually open to disperse their seed in the form of little puff balls that get carried away. According to Flora they are hardy in USDA Zones 6-9, and in this day and age you can find various hybrids and cultivars in a variety of size and flower color.
I personally suggest you wait around long enough for a bee to come by and have a visit. They land and get busy as this little guy is doing above, but they quickly move around the flower sure to touch all the bright yellow-orange stamens before moving on to the next, going around in a perfect circle on each flower before moving on and repeating the motion for every flower in range. It reminds me of the old rotary telephones we had many years ago and that old visual and sound sensation of the face spinning around and around. Not to mention, not too bad a landing pad, huh?!?

When I was first getting started in horticulture I, like most, took each step one plant at a time and slowly over the years my plant palette evolved into the thousands of plants I know and love today. With that let me introduce you to one of my all-time favorite shade perennials, and one of the first plants I ever learned. This is Tricyrtis hirta, commonly known as hairy toad lily. No doubt it was it's unusual coloration and almost orchid-like appearance that attracted my novice eye. I am sure it has that affect on a lot of people as many friends and perfect strangers have stopped me and pulled out their iPhones hoping I can identify the wonder they have discovered.
Native to Japan hairy toad lily proves to be a fabulous garden or woodland plant for part shade to shade. The three foot stems are upright with a slight arch to them and the flowers form right up at the tips of the soft foliage. The foliage provides a nice coarse texture in the fall garden and the flower a subtle but sensational surprise so I can't help but think this is a pretty killer plant.
So, obviously our annuals are slowly but surely on the way out. And perhaps with all the rain and gray we had in June they didn't do as well as we would have hoped this year, but just the same they added extra shots of color and flower where we needed them for the summer months so we can't feel all that bad. We have all seen lots of different kinds of tropical begonias that use as houseplants or annuals, but I find that not very many people know about hardy begonia. Say hello to Begonia grandis.
Native to China and Japan, hardy in zones 6-9, and able to get to a couple feet high and wide, hardy begonia is a great plant option where you want a bit more showiness in your garden. The foliage is thick and fleshy like you would expect it to be and the light green leaves with tinges of red (nodes, venation) are themselves very poppy and contrasty. And then late summer in to the beginning of fall you get these great inflorescences of delicate pink male and female flowers.

And after the flowers pass their pollinated flowers transform into these great hanging clusters with pink, red, and yellow and persist to frost. Place it in your garden in sun to part shade and make sure it is kind of protected.

Platycodon grandiflorus in known as balloon flower. Also an Asian native, this member of the bellflower family (Campanulaceae) is hardy to USDA Zone 4, an upright plant that reaches 2' to 3' in full sun and maybe a couple feet in width. Not only is this a great garden flower because of it's 2" blossoms that persist through most of summer, but it also will have great fall color in a month or so before it dies back for this winter, a great combination of bright yellow and rich purple. The only thing you really need to know is that they need regular watering, some staking, and very regular dead-heading to keep going all summer long. But trust me, they can, so break out the needle-nose pruners and keep them close. It is easy to tell the spent flower from the buds, which you can see is where the plant gets it's name.

Lastly, for now, this is Actaea simplex 'Brunette', formerly known as Cimicifuga. Brunette cimicifuga is maybe not the most striking plant in the garden these days but with it's dark foliage and tall white spires it does hold up very well. But the best part of this plant I can't even begin to describe. If you are strolling in a garden some time soon and see this plant walk over to it instantly and without hesitation. Then sniff. The sweet smell of cimicifuga in the early fall is so good there is nothing like it.
The flowers are inflorescences, which to a novice gardener basically means that the each flower is not one flower, but actually a ton of tiny flowers next to each other in a specific arrangement to ultimately make up what most people call one flower. Here is a close up.

Actaea simplex 'Brunette' definitely gets to a healthy 3'-4' in height and width in sun to part shade in organic rich soil. The foliage tends to fade before the flower so it can get kind of bare looking, but provide me that amazing fragrance to work by for a cool breezy afternoon and I'll take a few brown leaves anytime.

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