Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Fall marks the end of the bloom season for perennial flowers, but this doesn’t mean gardens need no longer be attractive. There are a number of perennials that will continue to provide beauty after bloom, often long into winter.
This topic, and the lack of appreciation for the fall effects of plants, is not new. In an article in House Beautiful in August 1937, the author (Jean Hershey) states this well. “In seeking blooms we had missed the beauty of the other stage of growing things. A bud may be gentle and full of promise, a flower may be vital and spectacular, but all the tenderness and drama of both are combined and intensified in the beauty of the seed pod, which is their culmination. It is a beauty of form, of shape and of texture, if not of vivid color.”
Some examples of plants fitting such traits, or providing fall color and effect, was given in a presentation by Warren Leach of Tranquil Lake Nursery (Rehoboth, MA) in 2010. Perennials can be placed into groups of those with seedheads, evergreen foliage, fall color, ferns and ferny leaves, linear leaves such as grasses, and “illuminated” or colored leaves.
For attraction from seedheads after bloom, consider one of the many astilbe cultivars (cultivated varieties) for sites with moist soils and part shade. Their dense plumes can be from a foot to four feet or more above ground, depending on selection. Don’t be in a rush to cut back peonies unless the foliage is diseased or dead, as it can provide some late season color in addition to seedheads. There are many new coneflowers on the market, many with attractive seedheads from 2 to 4 feet above ground. I’m not in a rush to cut back most perennials with seedheads, as finches and other small birds often feed on them in preparation for our long winters.
Most perennials with evergreen foliage are lower so not seen once deep snows arrive, but in the meantime several can provide color. The spring-blooming hellebores or Lenten rose have dark green dissected leaves a foot or so off the ground. Lower to the ground are the glossy dark green leaves of the European ginger. While some hellebores are not hardy in the colder climates (check the hardiness of cultivars before buying), European ginger is hardy and can tolerate dense shade and a range of soils.
Then there are the sedum, with reddish to bluish to yellowish leaves, from groundcovers to a foot or more tall. Sedum, while not evergreen in cold climates, last well into winter in many areas. Many tall sedum have attractive seedheads. There are many coralbells with a range of leaf colors from purplish to reddish, orange to yellow, and some with reddish undersides to leaves.
Several perennials can provide fall color before dropping their leaves. The bluestars (Amsonia) turn a golden yellow, and at two or more feet high and wide give the effect of a shrub. Some of the perennial geraniums turn a reddish color in fall, such as the Bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum). The burgundy foliage of Bonfire spurge (Euphorbia) turns a brilliant red in fall. Some hostas turn a lovely yellow, as do the peonies already mentioned.
Many ferns, too, turn a nice yellow in fall. Osmunda ferns have brownish seed stalks as a bonus. The painted ferns (Athyrium) often have silvery leaves, and the cultivar Lady in Red has lovely red stems seen particularly well when backlit by the lower fall sun. In addition to foliage color, ferns provide that fine texture which contrasts well with broader leaves.
For a fine texture many also use linear leaves, as with grasses. There are many good and hardy ones to choose from including the Prairie dropseed (Schizachyrium), whose upright 3 foot leaves also provide bluish color as in the cultivar The Blues. Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon) is a mounded bluish grass, about 2 feet high and wide, while the blue fescue grasses may only be 6 inches high and wide. Heavy Metal and Northwind are bluish Switch grasses (Panicum), while there are some cultivars with reddish colors such as Prairie Fire and Shenandoah. Mass the upright feather reed grass (Calamagrostis) for its tan fall spikes, or use the moor grasses (Molinia) for their very fine and loose stalks 6 feet or more high.
For the more brilliant displays, often to use in moderation, consider perennials with illuminated leaves. The spreading dead nettle (Lamium), with its unsuitable common name, makes a great groundcover for most situations once established, except hot sun or too wet. These have green to blue-green leaves with silver or other variegation. Other perennials with white to silvery variegation include lungworts (Pulmonaria), some Jacob’s ladders (Polemonium), and many hostas.
Perennials with golden foliage include the Gold Heart bleeding heart (Dicentra), golden oregano, golden creeping loosestrife, golden cultivars of spiderwort (Tradescantia) such as Sweet Kate and of speedwell (Veronica) such as Aztec Gold, and the golden Hakone grass (Hakonechloa). Some hostas have golden variegated along with green, as does a vinca, Gold Edge thyme, and Golden Alexander loosestrife which is clump-forming and not spreading.
If you haven’t already cleaned up perennial beds and cut plants back, look for and leave those that are attractive and provide food for birds during their seasonal senescence. Look around, research, and make note of new such plants to add to your gardens next year.
(author’s note: Any videos or ads appearing here, added by WordPress, are not in any way related to nor have been approved by the author.)