University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
fine texture many also use linear leaves, as with grasses. There are many good
and hardy ones to choose from including the little bluestem (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.
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.
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.