As of September 23rd fall has officially arrived; but where are all those autumn foliage displays that we have come to expect from our gardens? Sure, there are a few reliables out like Red Maple (Acer rubrum) and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) giving us a hint of red and burgundy, but for the most part it appears that it is going to be a rather subdued showcase this season. This is due much in part to the weather; as summer came late this year, September was pretty rainy and it seems like Mother Nature wants to bypass autumn altogether with our overnight temperatures dropping quite suddenly.
What this means is that plants produced fewer of the chemicals responsible for fall colour, the flavonoids (yellow), carotenoids (orange) and anthocyanins (red and purple); because as the green chlorophyll found in leaves decomposes with the diminishing light, these other colours are unmasked but fewer pigments translates into a blasé autumn. So I thought I would direct your attention towards the other colours of fall - the late blooms, foliage, fading flowers, berries and fruits of an entirely different hue - pink and blue.
The first place I want to start is with an autumn standard; Euonymus alatus or Burning Bush. While this deciduous shrub varies somewhat depending on the cultivar, the vibrant scarlet fall foliage is almost guaranteed, except if planted in partial shade or when the growing conditions are less than ideal, such as this year. The resulting autumn display is an unusual antique rose-pink which really stands out on those overcast days. Another Euonymus of note is Spindle Bush or E. phellomanus which produces abundant 4-lobed fruit that are a marshmallow pink and open to reveal orange seeds. It also has corky wings on the branches like burning bush but is rare in cultivation.
Next on our list of colourful late flowering shrubs is Blue Spirea or Caryopteris x clandonensis. While not particularly hard to find, the bright blue flowers make their appearance from late summer into early autumn, when most people are on summer vacations or shopping for back to school. These full sun lovers have sage-scented foliage, abundant indigo blooms that really attract pollinators, zone 5 hardiness and a modest growth rate that usually matures under 3’ high and wide. Because it blooms on new wood, it should be cut back hard in early April and allowed to regrow, much like Butterfly Bush. I have three favourite cultivars including the Proven Winner ‘Beyond Midnight’ (dark blue flowers), ‘Summer Sorbet’ (gold-edged foliage) and ‘Worcester Gold’ (chartreuse foliage).
Fading flowers provide another fall showcase with those of the PG hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata) being some of the showiest, with the newer ‘Lavalamp Flare’ and ‘Lavalamp Candelabra’ firing up the autumn garden with their rose-pink blooms. Even the older ‘Limelight’ brightens up those dull fall days with their coppery- pink panicles at this time of year. While we’re on the topic of ordinary plants providing autumn interest, I came across a display of Sedum ‘Brilliant’ planted alongside some ‘Blue Star’ Junipers that provided a wonderful contrast of pink and blue, which while quite beautiful, was completely unexpected.
Another perennial of note that provides reliable pink flowers right into autumn is the Japanese Anemone. These daisy-like blooms are held on tall stems from August to October. While a bit precocious in their growth habits there are newer compact forms such as ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Pocahontas’ that usually mature at 18” tall. That said, the older more taller cultivars are workhorses for the back of the perennial border and include ‘September Charm’ or ‘Queen Charlotte’ (both about 3’ tall) while the semi-double ‘Prince Henry’ fits that middle ground gap at 2’.
Anemone 'Prince Henry', Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight', Hydrangea paniculata 'Lavalamp Flare', Sedum 'Brilliant' with 'Blue Star' Juniper
Viburnum nudum ‘Brandywine’ is another Proven Winner selection that provides attractive autumn foliage (burgundy) but more importantly, generous clusters of bubblegum pink berries that mature to deep blue, often providing a two-tone effect at this time of year. You can leave the berries on the bush for the birds to forage but you may want to try one or two yourself, because when fully dried they look and taste just like raisins, but with a bigger seed. Another shrub with attractive berries during this season are the Pink Snowberries (Symphoricarpos x doorenbosii) which are best represented by either ‘Marleen’ or the Proven Winner selection ‘Amethyst’ – these pink berries also don’t brown as quickly as the traditional white snowberry.
Getting back to the perennials, it’s hard to beat the flower power of the hardy fuchsia F. magellanica ‘Riccartonii’ which blooms from late spring and well into fall with its magenta-pink and purple blossoms. These are also important forage plants for our overwintering Anna’s Hummingbirds who often raid them until frost, at which time we take over with our feeders. While a little hard to find, Gentiana ‘True Blue’ lives up to its name with 2” indigo blooms from midsummer into early fall. While it does grow taller (20”) than its more common cousin, Gentiana acaulis, it more than makes up for it by being much easier to grow. Another perennial you might find this time of year is Leadwort or Ceratostigma plumbaginoides. This fall blooming plant features small starry blue blooms that contrast nicely against its bronze-red autumn foliage but it does take some time to establish itself in the garden, so be patient.
Gentiana 'True Blue', Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, Fuchsia magellanica 'Riccartonii'