Autumn Brilliance: Plants for Spectacular Fall Color, Part One …

October 5th, 2009 § 4 comments § permalink

Viburnum trilobum ‘Bailey Compact’ with Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’

What an impossibly beautiful morning. The sky is a scraped palette of blue-grey-violet, and the world all around me is a swirling kaleidoscope of orange and chartreuse, scarlet and vermillion, saffron and violet. I began my day with an early walk through the garden – savoring the ephemeral beauty of windflower and monkshood, and the delicate tufts of fountain grass.

My favorite woody plants, autumn’s radiant viburnum, shine against the moody sky as if lit from within. Viburnum trilobum ‘Bailey compact’ and V. nudum ‘Winterthur’ are particularly beautiful in early October. In fact, Bailey reminds me a bit of those rainbow colored confections found in old-fashioned candy stores. Do you know the ones I mean… the long, translucent cone with the stick? I can’t recall their name. The spice bush, (Lindera benzoin), has turned lemon-drop yellow, and her neighbor, the Bodnant viburnum, (V. bodnantense ‘Dawn’), is slowly shifting from maraschino to dark-cherry-fizz. But at the moment, the real stand-out in the garden is the flame-grass, (Miscanthus purpurascens). This glorious plant is a giant swirl of orange, yellow and grape hued ribbon, ready to be wound into a psychedelic lolly-pop. Delicious. Perhaps Willy Wonka collected plants in the fields beyond his factory?

And speaking of candy-shops – it seems my garden has turned into a feathered-foodie mecca. Every bird in the forest, from cedar wax-wings and cardinals to finches of every hue, has turned up to feast upon seeds and berries. The tea and nannyberry viburnum, (V. setigerum and V. lentago), are a beautiful sight with their brilliantly colored berries and stems, and the American cranberrybush viburnum, (V. trilobum ‘J.N. Select’ and ‘Baily compact’), is loaded with shimmering red fruit – all bright as gum-drops.

Oh dear. All of this talk about candy is making me hungry. But before I slip away to rustle up some breakfast, I will leave you with some ideas for autumn planting. This month I will be focusing on ornamental trees and shrubs, grasses and perennials for brilliant fall color. Take a peek at some of the colorful plants and combinations here. The key to successful late-season garden design is anticipating the color-shifts of autumn and winter. So let’s have a little fun with garden alchemy, shall we? I’ll meet you back here in just  a bit…

flame grass at edge of north garden : meadow edge 2Miscanthus purpurascens (Flame grass), and Viburnum trilobum, edge the meadow

amsonia, close upAmsonia illustris (Ozark Blue Star), glows against blue-green, ground-hugging juniper

viburnum setigerum, tea viburnumViburnum setigerum, (Tea viburnum), fruit in September

Anemone ‘Serenade’ (Japanese Wind Flower), harmonizes with golden hosta

Berry and stem coloration of North American native Viburnum lentago, (Nannyberry viburnum)

witch hazel 2Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ (Witch Hazel), color variation

witch hazelHamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’ (Witch hazel ), color variation

Lespedeza thunbergii bicolor bush cloverLespedeza thunbergii bicolor, (bush clover), provides late-season bloom

autumn color lindera bLindera benzoin (Spice bush), turns lemon yellow in early October

Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn' autumn color, companion Lindera benzoinViburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’, shines cherry red against Lindera’s gold

Rosa rugosa hipRosa rugosa’s (Rugosa rose) fruit is a knock-out in September

Viburnum plicatum var tomentosum 'Shasta' begins to colorViburnum plicatum var. tomentosum ‘Shasta’ (Doublefile viburnum)

Lindera b. fall color close upNorth American native Lindera benzoin, (Spice bush)

Viburnum trilobum J.N. Select RedwingViburnum trilobum ‘J.N. Select’ Redwing – American Cranberry Viburnum fruits

Viburnum trilobum JN Select 'Redwing' and Miscanthus purpurascensViburnum trilobum ‘J.N. Select’ Redwing, (American Cranberrybush viburnum), with Miscanthus purpurascens, a radiant combination on a misty morning

amsonia hubrichtiiAmsonia hubrichtii (Thread-leaf Blue Star), a glowing North American native plant

Cornus kousa fruitsCornus kousa, (Korean dogwood), fruit in September, slowly turns from green to scarlet

Humulus lupulus, "aureus'Humulus lupulus ‘Aureus’ (Golden hops), is bright all season long

Viburnum nudum 'Winterthur'Viburnum nudum ‘Winterthur’ turns a knock-out red with bright blue fruit

Dryopteris erythrosora autumn fern  'Brilliance'Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’, (Autumn fern), is one of the stars of late-season shade

entry walk, viburnum, miscanthus, lindera b, viburnum b, autumn perennialsEntry garden: Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’, Viburnum trilobum ‘Bailey Compact, groundcover ajuga reptans,’Brocade’Background: Viburnum bodnantense ‘Dawn’, Fothergilla gardenii, (still green), Lindera benzoin,(gold), Cornus kousa. Background perennials: Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, Rudbeckia hirta.

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For more on ornamental grass, see ‘Autumn and Everything After‘…

Article and Photographs copyright 2009, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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Tricyrtis formosana ‘Dark Beauty’ ….. The Late Blooming Perennial Toad Lily

September 18th, 2009 § 3 comments § permalink

Tricyrtis formosana ‘Dark Beauty’ in the Secret Garden at Ferncliff

The first time I encountered Tricyrtis formosana she had been stripped of all foliage and was displayed dramatically with coppery toned twigs in a Japanese vase. It was lust at first sight. I was standing at the front desk in an elegant hotel lobby, and although I had plenty of things on my mind, I was driven to distraction by this flower. I suspected this was no orchid, but I could not identify her. Completely possessed, I had to know everything about the plant immediately. I peppered the hotel manager and staff with questions, and of course, no one could help me. In fact, I am certain the concierge thought me quite mad. He was busy and completely indifferent to my horticultural distress.

So I lurked about the first floor of the hotel, lingering in the bar with a late afternoon libation until the uncooperative employees departed. When the hotel staff changed shifts, a sympathetic face appeared behind the long slab of marble and I seized the opportunity at hand. This time I carefully tempered my enthusiasm so as not to appear too odd, and I simply inquired about the hotel’s florist. Much to my delight, after disappearing around the corner, the rather dashing fellow returned with a business card. “They are open tomorrow until noon”, he said. It was then that he must have noticed my aching gaze toward the vase, for he said… “Wait here just a moment”, and he disappeared once more. “Here…”, he smiled conspiratorially and presented me with three gorgeous stems, “These were on my boss’ desk”, he said, “and she has gone for the weekend”. I offered him a tip but he waved his hand. “My mother is obsessed with flowers, I understand”.

When the florist’s shop opened the next day, I learned that the object of my infatuation was a cultivar of Tricyrtis formosana. And although she may look like a member of the orchid family, she is not. Her swollen buds and speckled, waxy petals do bear a striking resemblance to Cymbidium, or perhaps Phalaenopsis, but her alternate lance-shaped leaves and hairy stems are a dead give away. This dappled beauty is actually a lily. A toad lily, in fact. And although I do find warty amphibians quite charming, I think this name is completely unsuitable. Other than Tricyrtis’ preference for a moist location, there is nothing toad-like about this elegant plant.

Tricyrtis formosana ‘Dark Beauty’ and Uncinia egmontiana, (orange hook sedge)

This initial introduction to Tricyrtis formosana was some years ago, before I finished college. When I finally had a garden of my own I was back in New England and Tricyrtis formosana was nowhere to be found. Although I heard there were hardier cultivars, (most range-out at zone 6), I could not find one to match the beauty I met in the hotel that day. Time went by, and I moved on to other botanical loves, but I never forgot my “orchid-lily”.

I shop around quite a bit for plants every year, and I try to keep an open mind when it comes to sources. You never know. Sometimes the most unusual things will turn up at a garden swap, or even a yard sale. I am no shop-girl snob, and I am certainly not above looking for botanical treasures in the most common of places. But I have to admit I was taken aback when I ran into my old love at the Home Depot. Of all the box stores in all the towns in all the world…

There she was, Tricyrtis formosana, the ‘Dark Beauty’.  Needless to say she came home with me. Native to Japan, this lovely lily brings a touch of exotic, Asian elegance to my shady northern nook. Much to my delight, this cultivar is hardy in zones 4 – 8.  She likes partial shade and constant moisture, and when happy her rhizomatous roots will spread out to form 2 to 3 foot colonies. Best of all, the ‘Dark Beauty’ blooms in early to mid fall, when few other flowers remain in my garden. I believe she likes taking the stage all to herself in the late show. And I am more than happy to supply her with a vibrant supporting cast.

The bold orange tones of Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa macra ‘Nicolas’, strike a beautiful, contrasting chord when positioned beside the violet hues of Tricyrtis formosana ‘Dark Beauty’. A similar effect may be achieved when she is combined with orange hook sedge, (Ucinia egmontiana). Although you might not expect a dramatic late season finale when the pair are viewed throughout the quiet days of summer, ‘Dark Beauty’ will stand out in bold contrast to the orangy-gold autumn color of  our native cinnamon fern, (Osmonda cinnamonea), in fall. Tricyrtis formosana reaches a height somewhere between 18 and 28″, and she combines beautifully with other perennials. I might choose coral bells (Heuchera), for the foreground and perhaps position her beside a dark violet monkshood, (Aconitum, various cultivars), to create a dramatic autumn vignette. Her glossy green leaves play nicely against the feathery foliage of Astilbe, or the statuesque Goat’s Beard, (Aruncus dioicus), who backs up ‘Dark Beauty’ particularly well.

So here we are together again. Me and my old flame Tricyrtis formosana. So why not play it Sam? This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship …

Tricyrtis formonsana ‘Dark Beauty’ with Orange Hook Sedge

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Article and Photographs copyright 2009, Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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Autumn and Everything After……. Designing Beautiful Late Season Gardens with Ornamental Grass…

September 3rd, 2009 § 4 comments § permalink

Autumn is a Second Spring, When Every Leaf is a Flower” – Camus

A Grouping of Miscanthus sinensis, ‘Morning Light’, ‘Variegatus’, and Miscanthus ‘Purpurascens’ in Mid-October at Ferncliff

Pennisetum alopecuroides, (fountain grass), with sedum and juniper in the entry garden at Ferncliff  in early September, just before the inflorescence appear.

Much as I would like summer to drag her feet a bit when departing this year, I find myself looking forward to the brilliant beauty of fall. Living in New England has its benefits, and the months of September, October and November are three of them. Autumn has always been my favorite time of the year, and in no place is my seasonal preference more evident than the garden. As the writer Camus once said, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”. Indeed. I truly savor this second spring, for although I do love the early buds and bulbs of April, pastel hues don’t really excite me. Dark red is my favorite color, and bitter orange, rust, deep violet and burgundy aren’t far behind. The cerulean skies and stained-glass forest canopies of autumn bring a touch of heaven straight to my little paradise on earth. In September and October I feel as if I am living in a paint box, surrounded by a palette of colors so brilliant that simply going for a walk is all the inspiration any artist could hope for.

I cherish the fall gardening season. Some of my most treasured trees, shrubs and perennials reach their peak beauty in autumn. Of the many late-season plants in my garden, the ornamental grasses are high on my list of favorites. Grasses are useful though out the gardening season, of course. Beginning in mid-summer and continuing throughout winter, ornamental grasses provide dramatic foliage, texture and form to my gardens. But come autumn, the shifting hues of foliage and beautifully textured spikes, racemes and panicles of ornamental grass create the potential for a spectacular garden show that can not be beat. By early September, when many perennials and annuals have petered out in the garden, my ornamental grasses are just warming up for their crescendo. As the days shorten and nights cool, chemical changes are triggered in many deciduous trees, shrubs and other plants in the northern areas of the United States. Ornamental grasses also respond to these changes, and many begin to take on subtle tints and vivid hues as dramatic as the trees.

Miscanthus purpurascens, (close up), early fall color, (click to enlarge)

When I design a garden, I try to keep this spectacular late-show in mind. September blooming pepper bush, (Clethera alnifolia, a native shrub I featured here last month), sculptural spice bush, (Lindera benzoin), and and the lovely native paper birch, (Betula papyrifera), all turn brilliant yellow in autumn. I like to combine fall’s seasonal gold foliage with the purple-burgundy-red kaleidoscope-like hues of flame grass, (Miscanthus purpurascens), the brilliant orange of Japanese forest grass, (Hakonechloa macra, cvs. ‘Nicolas’, or burgundy tipped, ‘Beni Kaze’), for example. Witch alder, (Fothergilla gardenii), and many viburnum species, including the arrow wood, (V. dentatum), the American cranberrybush, (V. trilobum), and the European cranberrybush, (V. opulus), turn brilliant shades of red and orange in autumn. This makes them great companions for a wide variety of grasses including switch grass, (Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy metal’, (a blue grass in summer, turning gold in fall), wild oats, (Chasmanthium latifolium), green in summer and red-bronze in fall), and again, flame grass, (Miscanthus pupurascens). Late blooming perennials, such as asters, rudbeckia, mums, sedum and monkshood  all make great companion plants for ornamental grasses.

Hakonechloa NicolasThe summer color of Hakonechloa macra ‘Nicolas’,above, intensifies further in autumn

Unless you are a more experienced gardener, companion planting for autumn interest can be a bit difficult. How can you predict color-shifts and texture changes? Nursery tags are often stingy with clues. A good encyclopedia is useful for learning about ornamental grasses and their seasonal changes. And if you know the name of a cultivar, you can easily research information on a web-site such as Dave’s Garden. But for the true ornamental grass aficionado, Rick Darke’s The Color Encyclopedia of Ornamental Grasses (see library) is a great asset. This book will help you to identify more unusual cultivars of sedge, rush, restios, cat-tails and bamboo as well as the gorgeous grasses native to North America and beyond.

Miscanthus purpurascens, (Flame grass) in late September

When I want to add texture and movement in a garden design, no matter the season, I often look to ornamental grass. The larger garden grasses, such as miscanthus, panicum, and calmagrostis, bring important vertical interest and essential structure to perennial gardens. From the fine, delicate foliage and sensual lines of maiden grass, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ to the bold geometric presence of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’, can make a dramatic, sculptural statement in a garden. Grasses can be used to soften modern buildings and camouflage unattractive architecture. A natural choice beside lakes, ponds, streams and pools, grasses also bring a relaxed line to hard-edged water features. Many species of grass are drought tolerant, and a number will survive roadside conditions in even the most inhospitable environments. Alone or as a group, settled into a garden or spilling over a pot, placed at a juncture or to mark a final destination, ornamental grass can provide great focal points in many garden design situations. Ornamental grasses planted en mass can blur the edges of a garden, helping to ease the transition between formal and informal areas. Because of the dramatic stature reached by many large ornamental grasses, they are also very useful as living screens, helping to conceal unsightly necessities such as fuel tanks and air conditioning units. It is easy to understand the growing popularity of this diverse group of plants.

North American native, Bouteloua curtipendula (side-oats grasss), backed by taller Pennisetum alopecuroides in the entry garden at Ferncliff, early September

striped grass and juniperMiscanthus sinensis ‘Variegatus’, here used as a specimen and below, a different cultivar used in a large grouping at the eastern-edge of the garden.


karl f. backed up by viburnumCalamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, backed by Viburnum trilobum

Miscanthus ‘Purpurascens’ grouped at the edge of the northwest meadow in August…

And again, in late September…

miscanthus morning light back lit from the eastThis two year old grass specimen, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning light’, catches the early sun as it rises to the east at the edge of the wildflower walk in early September

Although ornamental grasses have become quite common in sunny perennial gardens, they are still surprisingly overlooked in shade garden designs. This surprises me because grass exists naturally in all but the darkest of shady woodlands, and they can add tremendously to the subtle beauty of low-light gardens. In the shade, I often add fine textured ornamental grass to contrast with larger, broad leafed foliage, such as the leathery, smooth surfaced leaves of hosta. I also like to include bright colored grasses to shade gardens in order to illuminate dark corners and shadowy areas beneath trees. Japanese woodland grass, (Hakonechloa macra), is one of my favorite plants. The golden cultivars, ‘Aureola’ and ‘All-Gold’ are very useful in low light areas, and in contrast to violent-tinted foliage. Newer cultivars, such as ‘Nicolas’ and ‘Ben Kaze’,(mentioned above), are rich in bitter orange and burgundy hues. These are truly spectacular plants with enormous design potential. Sedges are also useful in partial shade. I count orange-hook sedge, (Ucinia egmontiana), among my favorite low-light grasses, although it is marginally hardy in New England, (I usually place it in pots for summer and move them inside for winter).  Sedges will also tolerate more sunlight, provided they are given ample moisture, and I like to use them in brighter locations as well, (see pots on deck below).

A close-up of Hakonecholoa macra ‘All Gold’ in the shady Secret Garden at Ferncliff

hakonechloa in morning lightHakonecholoa macra ‘All-Gold’, (Japanese forest grass), catching the morning light in the Secret Garden at Ferncliff

hakonechloa macra 'aureola' with cimicifuga r. 'hillside black beauty'The golden color of this Japanese forest grass brings out the violet hues in the companion plantings of Cimicifuga racemosa ‘Hillside black beauty’ and the young foliage of euphorbia on the left

Many ornamental grasses also make great potted plants. I particularly like sedge and stipa in massive groupings on decks and terraces, where they catch the slightest breeze. A sedge commonly known as fiber-optic plant, (Isolepis cernua), looks very dramatic in a pot. I like to allow this mop-like grass to spill over the edge of a planter, emphasizing its pendent form. Whenever I set a fiber-optic plant out on a pedestal, it becomes the focus of attention and conversation, like living sculpture. Personally, I have grown a bit tired of cleverly designed, over-planted pots. I prefer simplicity. Over the past few years, I have been limiting my planter-compositions to a few species of plants, and ornamental grasses are often featured in my current designs.

Stipa tenuissima, (Mexican Feather Grass)

Orange Hook Sedge, (Uncinia egmontiana)

Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ and Stipa tenuissima Catching the Breeze and Afternoon Light

Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ up close

Like many cold-climate gardeners, I try to enjoy my garden for as long as possible. And I consider ornamental grass and important part of the winter garden as well. Although some people prefer their gardens to be tidy, cut, and thoroughly mulched come winter, I like to leave my hardier grasses standing until spring thaw. Frost, ice and light snow emphasize the delicate patterns of ornamental grass, and for this reason I consider them a four season plant. I continue to enjoy the tassels and the rust, buff and wheat hues of bleached out grass well into winter. By December, when little color remains in the garden, ornamental grass continues to add subtle, creamy tones. I particularly like the way wheat colored pennisetum draws attention to the red berries remaining on my winterberry, (Ilex verticillata ‘Red sprite’. Because texture and color are so important in the winter garden, I prefer to cut many ornamental grasses back in spring. Why not enjoy all the beauty nature has to offer us, autumn and beyond?

Grasses remain beautiful well into winter. Above, pictured in the entry garden at Ferncliff, fountain grass and side oats look particularly magical in December when coated with ice or snow. Below, the tassels of Miscanthus sinensis, frozen with ice, catch the January light…

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Woo in the native meadow garden with rudbeckia and Deschampsia flexuosa, (hair grass)

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Article and all other photographs ⓒ 2009 Michaela at TGE

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Do you enjoy visiting The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through our affiliate links. A small percentage of any sale originating from The Gardener’s Eden site will go toward web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you for your support!


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