University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
PERENNIALS FOR LATE-SEASON COLOR
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Resist the temptation to cut all
those perennials back in fall just to look tidy and be ready for
spring. Of course you’ll want to cut back any that
are unsightly, flopped over (“lodged”), diseased, or lack vigor from
stresses. But leave some perennials for
their attractive fall foliage colors and seedheads. Those with
seeds provide food for birds in
preparation for winter. A few may even provide some late flower
For fall interest, lower plants will
suffice. But for winter with its usual
snow cover, you’ll want to consider leaving some taller perennials.
Many ornamental grasses are a great
late-season choice for either their foliage color or texture, or
both. Some provide seeds to birds, too.
Some choices for blue foliage
include a few of these ornamental grasses.
‘Elijah Blue’ fescue makes a nice bluish mound, under a foot high.
Similar in color and habit, only much larger,
mounding 2 feet high and wide, is the blue oat grass (Helictotrichon).
and open in habit, its bluish summer leaves turning quite tan in
late fall, is
little bluestem (Schizachyrium) and
its cultivars (cultivated varieties).
Another good low choice, other than grasses but still with narrow
leaves, is the pinks or dianthus.
For a more upright effect, consider
some of the switchgrasses (Panicum)
with bluish leaves, such as the tall ‘Cloud Nine’ (6 feet or more
tall), a bit
shorter ‘Dallas Blues’ or ‘Prairie Sky’, or even shorter (4 to 5
‘Dewey Blue’ or ‘Heavy Metal’. Seeds of
switchgrasses are attractive to small birds. Results of my trials in
both little bluestem and switchgrasses, as part of a larger national
program, are online (perrysperennials.info).
Don’t overlook the blue and purple
flowers of the late-blooming New England aster.
If you prune these back by a third to half in June, they’ll be more
branched, dense, and will bloom even later into the fall.
Contrasting nicely with bluish colors
are plants with burgundy to purple leaves.
Once again there are some 3 to 5-foot high switchgrasses to chose
best including Ruby Ribbons and ‘Hanse Herms’.
Several others have some red leaves mixed among the green. In
trials of little bluestem grass cultivars
in Vermont, a new one from Minnesota— Blue Heaven— has very
attractive dark red
fall color on plants just over 2 feet high.
There are several 4 to 5-foot high cultivars
of dark purple-leaved bugbanes (Actaea,
formerly Cimicifuga) such as
‘Hillside Black Beauty’, ‘Brunette’, and ‘Black Negligee’.
‘Firecracker’ hairy loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) is a
non-spreading species, 3 to 4-feet high with dark reddish leaves, as
‘Chocolate’ cultivar of white snakeroot (Eupatorium). The
latter is best in warmer regions (USDA
zone 5b, average minimum of -10 to -15 degrees F in winter).
Lower at under 2 feet high are some
dark-leaved perennial geraniums, such as ‘Espresso’, ‘Midnight
‘Elizabeth Ann’. Similar in height but
more upright and less mounded is ‘Bressingham Purple’ Jacob’s ladder
(Polemonium). Many such purple-leaved perennials will have
less color, being more green, when grown in part shade rather than
sun. One that does hold its
reddish-purple leaf color well through fall is the upright
relatively new sedum
‘Postman’s Pride’. ‘Lady in Red’ painted
fern (Athyrium) has bright red stems
in mid-fall. ‘Bonfire’ cushion spurge (Euphorbia)
has bright red fall leaf color, but needs a warmer climate (USDA
zone 5b) or
reliable snow cover to survive.
For even lower red to purple-leaved perennials,
about a foot high, are the many dark-leaved coralbells (Heuchera).
These include some of the top-rated in our Vermont
trials (see the above research website) including ‘Blackout’, ‘Dark
Secret’, and ‘Frosted Violet’.
While not perennial, the kale and
cabbages are worth mentioning as they provide some of the best blue
dark red and purple leaves into late fall—often until Thanksgiving
after. Some are lower, a foot high,
while others such as scarlet kale and crane bicolor kale reach two
former with dark red fringed leaves, the latter columnar with pink
coloring at the top.
There is a flower to mention too in
this reddish color spectrum. ‘Sheffield Pink’ is a hardy
cultivar, blooming salmon pink in mid to late fall and one of the
to bloom. While it often survives in
colder areas, the season may be too short for it to actually bloom.
For golden to yellow leaves,
perennials are mainly the lower ones under a foot high. For taller
gold leaves, you may need to use
shrubs such as golden-leaved evergreens or conifers. You can get
color from bluestars (Amsonia),
growing two feet or more high and resembling a shrub. Or try
Osmunda ferns for their upright golden
long leaves, contrasting nicely with
their brown “seed” stalks.
Some of the lower golden to yellow
perennials for fall include ‘Angelina’ sedum, the golden creeping
Jenny (Lysimachia), golden oregano,
‘Aztec Gold’ speedwell (Veronica), ‘Dickson’s
Gold’ bellflower (Campanula), ‘Gold
Bullion’ bluet (Centaurea), and
‘Illumination’ perennial periwinkle (Vinca). Golden hakone
grass (Hakonechloa) is good in sun or part shade in warmer
zone 5b). Some golden perennials, such as the bluet, the golden
spiderwort (Tradescantia), or those
with gold variegation, often revert to green leaves. To keep them
golden or variegated you’ll need
to cut off, or out, any such green shoots.
Then there are those with white or
silvery leaves, often during the season and lasting through fall
until they die
back or are covered with snow. Most are
low, under a foot high, such as the lungworts
(Pulmonaria) with their silvery to
silver-spotted leaves, or the popular compact ‘Silver Mound’ mugwort
(Artemisia). There are a couple of taller silver mugworts
too, such as ‘Silver King’, that can spread aggressively by their
are a couple silvery cultivars of Siberian bugloss (Brunnera)
such as ‘Jack Frost’ and ‘Looking Glass’. The white dead nettles (Lamium)
are a spreading groundcover, some with quite white or
Marginally hardy in cold areas,
better in USDA zone 5, are the toad lilies. These Asian imports have
attractive white flowers, often speckled lilac, in mid fall just
over a foot
tall. For taller white flowers in fall
are some asters, such as the heath aster (Symphotrichum
ericoides), and the false chamomile
‘Snowbank’ (Boltonia asteroides),
reaching 3 feet or more high.
One of the best for a shimmering
silver effect through fall, from its 6 to 8 foot high flower plumes,
silver banner grass (Miscanthus
sacchariflorus). Be careful with
this one and place in a bed by itself, as it is quite root invasive
overpower most any other plant. I keep
threatening to try and remove mine, but each fall the plumes redeem
for yet another season, particularly with backlighting from the low
Keep the fall effect of your
perennials in mind, both with fall pruning and with choosing plants
extended season of color.