by Charles Kidder
If you think fall color comes only from the foliage of trees, you may be missing out on many perennials that bloom from late summer and on through the fall. And I’m not just talking about the ubiquitous mums that shout from nursery shelves at this time of year but rarely survive to the next year. Let’s look at a few favorites that perhaps could make your garden even more colorful than it was back in the spring.
Goldenrod is one of those plants that “doesn’t get any respect.” After all, at this time of year, it lines roadsides and covers fields, so who needs to plant it? To make matters worse, it sometimes gets the rap for causing hay fever. Wrong! The true culprit is ragweed, an abundant plant dumping tons of pollen in late summer from its inconspicuous flowers. So, you can plant goldenrod with impunity. After all, such a bright, cheerful plant can still be an asset to any garden.
Just don’t transplant goldenrod from the wild. It will take over your garden! Better to choose some well-mannered cultivars, such as Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks,’ with many arching sprays of flowers, or S. sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece,’ more compact than the wild plants. For a real change of pace, try Solidago x ‘Little Lemon,’ with light yellow rather than golden flowers, and standing less than a foot tall.
Another familiar yellow-flowered plant is the sunflower. Instead of planting the typical annual with its huge flowers, try one of the perennial varieties. They make up for their smaller flowers, only two to three inches in diameter, with sheer numbers, hundreds covering a single plant. Like goldenrods, wild sunflowers are somewhat thuggish, some species reaching ten feet in height and reseeding prolifically. Luckily, several cultivars are more demure, although they may still produce offspring.
Two cultivars of willow-leaf sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius) are shorter than the species. ‘First Light’ is about four feet tall, admittedly still a good-sized perennial. If you want a truly shrunken sunflower, twelve-inch ‘Low Down’ should fit into any garden. ‘Lemon Queen,’ a hybrid with several parents, is not particularly short at 4 to 6 feet, but its pale yellow flowers may fit better into your garden’s color scheme. Many varieties of sunflower are happiest in fairly moist soils, but also do fine in average conditions and are pretty drought-tolerant once established.
Another fall wildflower, the asters generally have purple, blue or pinkish flowers that contrast nicely with the yellows of goldenrod and sunflowers. Like those other wildflowers, they can be aggressive in
gardens, so keep your eye on them. Remember: they don’t succeed in the wild by being polite.
‘Raydon’s Favorite’ is a cultivar of Symphotrichum oblongifolium (known as Aster oblongifolius in the good old days) with medium-blue flowers and aromatic foliage on a low bushy plant. Unlike many asters, it does okay in dry soils. ‘Fanny’s Aster’ is another cultivar of the same species, but with dark purple flowers appearing well into October and reaching 3-4 feet in height.
Most asters do best in full sun, but if you want one for a shady area, try the White Wood Aster, Eurybia divaricata. Just like the name says, the flowers are white, and it does fine in the woods, often spreading happily into a two-foot high carpet.
Something of an oddball among the asters is the Climbing Aster (Symphotrichum carolinianum). A native to the Deep South coastal plain, it’s not a true vine, since it neither twines nor grabs onto surfaces. Like some roses, it sends out shoots that arch over tree branches, eventually getting twenty feet off the ground in its native haunts. Around here, Climbing Aster is more likely to merely become shrublike and might die to the ground in a cold winter. Its pinwheel rose-pink flowers appear very late, perhaps November, when the foliage may have a burgundy hue. A nice contrast.
You might have noticed that all the plants we’ve talked about have something in common, aside from being late summer to fall bloomers. They are all members of the Aster family, sometimes known as the Composites, owing to each “flower” actually being a collection of scores of tiny individual flowers. Sometimes the inflorescence is in the daisy shape found on sunflowers; in other cases, it takes on branching or flat-topped forms. Several flat-topped inflorescences, known as corymbs, may be grouped together to form a large dome like we see on the Joe Pye Weeds. Joe Pye weeds, bonesets, etc. comprise a couple of dozen species that used to be lumped into the genus Eupatorium. Once again, taxonomists have done their darndest to make life difficult for gardeners, so brace yourself for some new names. The wild Joe Pye weeds tend to be tall—up to ten feet—and are commonly found in wet roadside ditches and meadows. If this is a bit too much height for your garden, consider a couple of shorter alternatives. Eupatoriadelphus dubium ‘Little Joe’ tops out at four feet, and ‘Baby Joe’ at only about thirty inches. Both cultivars have the typical mauve flower heads that are so appealing to butterflies.
A cousin to the Joe Pyes, Blue Mist flower, aka Hardy Ageratum (Concoclinium coelestinum) is a small spreading plant with the sky blue flowers the name promises. It can be weedy, popping up all over my yard, but it pulls up easily, and I wouldn’t give up that azure mist in September and October. It too prefers wet places, but gets by in average conditions.
All these perennials are a welcome sign that the heat of summer is on the wane, and that now we can look forward to those changing foliage hues. More on those next month.
If you can’t locate any of these plants at local nurseries, let me suggest Lazy S’S Farm Nursery (lazyssfarm.com) in Barboursville. Even though it’s nearby, it’s strictly mail order/internet. But they have an astounding variety of plants!