Usher in Autumn with These Three Perennials That Provide a Punch of Color



What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions “fall color?”  Trees?  Yes, fantastic fall color.  Many Trees have great fall color, from the gold of the much maligned Cottonwood to the red, oranges, and yellows of the mighty Sugar Maple and the more petite Ironwood.  But what about perennials?  Mums you say?  Sure, but this isn’t 1956, let’s think a bit more creatively, when we think of fall perennials.  Here are three great ones:

‘Iron Butterfly’ Vernonia


The dwarf cultivar of Narrow Leaf Ironweed (Vernonia lettermanii) known as ‘Iron Butterfly’ is a recent introduction by Allan Armatage of the University of Georgia.  Growing to 18″ to 24″ in height and width, this late summer blooming has outstanding purple color, not unlike many asters, but unlike asters, this one does not look like a weed when not in bloom.  The finely cut foliage has the appearance of Amsonia hubrichtii and meshes well with other perennials, waiting its turn to enter the autumn spotlight. 

This butterfly magnet prefers full sun and well drained soil, but can handle part sun and periods of wet soil, making it a great plant for rain gardens.



Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’

Admittedly Hylotelephium ‘Herbstfreude’  aka. Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ has been around since Georg Arends of Germany introduced it to American gardeners in the early 1950’s, and is certainly not underused.  It is however, too often misused.  Planted in rings around the base of Silver Maple trees, or massed with daylilies and purple coneflowers, ‘Autumn Joy’ seems a bit joyless – especially when it flops over due to an over zealous irrigation system.  However, planted as single accents throughout a garden, in full sun with ornamental grasses such as Switchgrass, Prairie Dropseed, or Little Bluestem it is a late season standout.  The butterfly attracting flowers start out green, turning pink, then burgundy, and finally a rich rusty brown that stay upright all winter long – a feat other large flowered sedums simply can not match.


Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ growing with Amsonia hubrichtii. The bright gold foliage of Amsonia will complement the seedheads of the sedum later in autumn.



‘Blue Twist’ Allium (lower left) is just fading, as Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and Vernonia ‘Iron Butterfly’ take center stage in the late summer garden.


Blue-stemmed Goldenrod


For a more shady location (or full sun), Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia) is a real charmer.  This Midwestern native goldenrod can be found growing in woodlands under oaks and Sugar Maples.  Clusters of petite golden yellow flowers form along its arching stems, creating a bold mass of color in the late summer landscape.  Blue-stemmed Goldenrod grows in neat clumps, 18″ to 24″ high, allowing it to be placed among other plants without fear of is forming a massive unruly colony, unlike the stoloniferous ‘Fireworks’ Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) often seen in garden centers.


While Blue-stemmed Goldenrod may reseed, the plants grow in tight clumps, rather than forming aggressive colonies in the garden.

Placed where afternoon sun will fall on its bright yellow flowers, this plant can be spectacular under the open shade of large trees, brightening an otherwise dark corner of the landscape.  Plant in well drained soil with Drummond’s Aster (Aster sagittifolius) and Solomon’s Beard (Smilacina racemosa) for a pleasing fall display.



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The Late Summer Landscape Can Be Lively With These Native Plants



Every day that I walk around my yard or simply look out of a window, I see something that brings a smile to my face.  Just today, I stood still, as I watched a hummingbird sip the last bits of nectar from an Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) growing in the herb garden, just off my patio.  The Monarch butterflies have been busy also, but they seem to prefer the late blooming Savanna Blazingstar (Liatris scariosa).  And the Soldier Beetles seem to swarm just about everything. 

One corner of my yard has particularly caught my eye the past few weeks.  This garden did not exist just three years ago, but began when I found a seedling Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)growing in my shade garden – I moved it to where it would get more sun and have room to grow – three years later, it’s at least 15 feet tall and its produced it first clusters of deep red seed heads this year – especially interesting in the winter garden.


Its fuzzy branches give Staghorn Sumac its common name. It has great fall color.

While the Sumac is dramatic, especially in fall, with leaves that turn shades of red, orange, and yellow, the other plants in this garden certainly hold their own, as well.  The Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolis heterolepis) along the front edge of the garden starts to send up their seed heads in August, and can be quite dramatic as they catch the light of the setting sun or the dew of a cool autumn morning.  A showy grass from spring until early winter, Prairie Dropseed only asks to be cut back in late winter, just before new growth appears in spring.


The low stature, soft texture, easy nature of Prairie Dropseed make it a great transition plant for the front of the landscape bed.

The ‘Annabelle’ Hydrangeas got a bit burned in the drought, but still look fine as their green flower heads start to turn a golden straw color as summer turns to autumn.   These seed heads hold fast, and give the winter garden much needed interest.


The 7 foot tall plants covered in golden yellow flowers are Golden Glow (Rudbeckia laciniata), a late season bloomer, most loved by the non-migrating Goldfinches as they produce oil rich seed late into the season.  While Golden Glow can be found growing along sunny streamsides, it does quite well in the average garden.  In fact, since its tendency is to spread by underground runners, drier soil helps to keep them in bounds.  The Silphiums, such as Prairie Dock and Cup-plant are also tall late season bloomers, but as mentioned in an earlier post, in a garden setting their tall flower stalks tend to flop over, Golden Glow does not flop, in fact the stems stay upright throughout winter and look quite interesting as the seed head remnants wear caps of winter snow.


Cup-plant (Silphium perfoliatum) can flop over with it exuberant growth in a garden setting – Golden Glow would have been a better choice here (as seen at the Morton Arboretum)



The flowers of Golden Glow, really do seem to glow in early evening light.

The big bold leaves of Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) form a basal rosette from which the flower stems emerge in mid-summer.  And, while it is actually past its bloom period, its waxy seed heads still appear showy late into the growing season, slowly turning turning a gray brown on top of stems that stay upright straight through winter, creating beautiful silhouettes against the fresh fallen snow.


I came across a new plant to try out this year, when I attended a native plant sale, held by the Will County Forest Preserve.  Blue Mistflower (Eupatorium coelestinum) is not native to my northern Illinois region, but can be found growing along streamsides, in both sun and part shade as far south as Texas.  It’s been blooming in my garden since June, but has really started to put on color now, in September.  The Missouri Botanical Garden considers it a bit of an aggressive spreader – but in the well drained soil that I have it growing in, rather than its preferred moist soil, I am optimistic that it will not be a problem plant – an in fact with those late season blue flowers on two foot tall plants, I am hoping it does spread – a bit.


This late season bloomer looks fantastic – even with the drought. This plant is growing in morning sun, which may help explain its happy attitude.

As mentioned earlier, the Monarch butterflies have been going nuts over the last of the blazingstars to bloom, the Savanna Blazingstar (Liatris scariosa).   As its name indicates, this flower can be found growing with oaks in its native surroundings – and it does, in fact, do quite well with limited sun – unlike most other blazing stars which prefer full sun.  Shown here, growing amongst a gray leaved Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum).  The flowering stems of the three foot tall blazingstars combine well with the four foot tall Switchgrass, seeming to float just below the airy seed heads of the grass.



A few morning glories reseed themselves every year in this garden, climbing over the hydrangeas and the the grasses, they create bright pops of color throughout.

With a bit a planning, and some experimentation of plant combinations, the late summer garden can be truly stunning, full of color and drama. 



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The Native Plant Garden: Pruning Prairie Dock Prevents Problems


2010: This is so awesome, hey is that a storm on the horizon?

As its name proclaims, Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) is native to the tallgrass prairie of North America, and is a must have for the sunny native plant garden.  The spade shaped leaves are big and bold – a nice contrast to the grasses and other prairie plants – the look is almost tropical.  And the flower stalks on Prairie Dock can get wicked tall, 6 to 8 feet tall. 

For the first couple of years, I looked forward to this amazing feat, as the flower stalks grew taller and taller on the Prairie Dock planted along my driveway.  It would be the end of August, and just as the flowers began to open, a windy summer storm would move through and take down the stalks, leaving them sadly leaning at a 45 degree angle.  And, always, they fell towards my neighbor’s driveway. No good.  It was bad enough, true to their name, that all of the flowers faced south, towards the sun and my neighbor, and away from my view.

I could have staked the stems.  Too much work.  I decided to just cut off the flower stalks when they began to emerge in early July – the flowers where nice, I thought, but just did not work in a garden setting – the stems got too tall for their own good.  To my surprise, a new set of flower stems soon began to re-grow from the plant. 


Early July, just before the flower stalks were pruned off.

These, however, never got as tall (only 4 feet or so) and therefore did not get so top heavy as to flop over in a wind storm.  Incredibly, they flowered at the same time as the Prairie Docks in my backyard meadow that were not cut back – and they looked great – more flowers than on the taller stalks – bonus!


2013, Early September.  Other than the Baptisia ‘Twilight Prairie Blues” crowding out the Prairie Dock, all is well in the prairie garden.

The stems were cut back to the base of the plant.  As mentioned, the flower stalks could also be tied to stakes driven into the ground to help support them, but I actually like the shorter flowers stems in the garden setting that result from the early July pruning.


A little tough love for the Prairie Dock – it’s for the best, really.

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