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Flowers of Fall

By Mary Hirshfeld, Horticultural Curator, Cornell Plantations
September brings to mind thoughts of the approaching riotous finale of bright leaves that gild the Ithaca hills in October. However a select pallet of herbaceous perennials awaits the final days of summer to begin its flower display. Goldenrod and asters are familiar examples of fall bloomers. But less well known are toad lilies, turtleheads, and anemones.

Just as gardens begin to look weary of the summer heat and ready for a fall frost, toad lilies (Tricyrtis spp.) come into their own. Native to China and Japan, these woodlanders are best sited where their unusually patterned flowers can be closely viewed. The exquisitely shaped flowers are composed of six basally fused upright petals crowned with a central columnar star of stamens and pistils that resembles an arching fountain.

Luckily, several other selections are far less prone to this problem. 'Miyazaki', a more compact and floriferous selection of Tricyrtis hirta, is less prone to infection and provides a stunningflower display. Both Tricyrtis formosana and T. formosana var. stolonifera (a widely distributed hybrid of formosana and hirta) are graceful plants that form carpets of erect two- to three-foot stems clad in bright green foliage. Small terminal clusters of purple spotted flowers are held clearly above the foliage, producing a good display. A lovely new hybrid, 'Togen', also remains disease free, and carries flowers larger than most other toad lilies, their cream-colored petals suffused with amethyst. Both T. hirta and T. formosana have variegated forms whose soft green leaves are gilded with a pale golden edge.

Yellow waxbells (Kirengeshoma palmata) is a plant that impresses me more every season. A native of Japan, this robust woodlander reaches three to four feet in height, is adaptable to sun or shade, and brings a bold texture to the garden throughout the summer. Stems are often purple-tinged, strong and upright, and clad in bold, lavishly lobed foliage. Waxy yellow bell-shaped flowers are held in terminal clusters in August and September. Because the weight of the flowers causes the stems to bow gracefully forward, these plants are best displayed on a slope where they can cascade smoothly downward and the flowers can be seen from below. Despite its many positive attributes, and availability via some mail order nurseries Kirengesgoma remains relatively difficult to find. A similar plant, Kirengeshoma koreana, is inferior in ornamental value, its foliage a paler green and less elegantly lobed. Its faint yellow flowers are held horizontally and pass swiftly.

Japanese garden anemones are the royalty of late summer and early fall gardens. The first to bloom is the strongly rhizomatous Anemone tomentosa, still most frequently sold as A. vitifolia 'Robustissima'. Plants reach 18 inches in height and rapidly form dense colonies of wiry stems adorned with substantive three-parted leaves. In early August, clusters of dusty pale pink flowers open to reveal a central tuft of golden stamens and are followed by woolly white seed heads. Anemone tomentosa is the easiest, hardiest, and most adaptable of the fall flowering anemones and will quickly get out of bounds if its foraging network of rhizomes is not controlled. Less rampant and slightly more refined is Anemone hupehensis, which closely follows vitifolia in sequence of bloom. Its flowers are a lovely two-tone pink; the backs of alternate petals are a rich dark pink, while the interior is several shades paler. 'September Charm' is a lovely selection of A. hupehensis, forming a cloud of airy pink in the peony garden at Plantations throughout September.

The real gem of the genus is Anemone xhybrida, a hybrid of A. hupehensis var. japonica and A. vitifolia. Since the original hybrid was developed in 1848, many stunning cultivars have been developed, offering single and semi-double flowers in white, cream and various shades of pink. One of the oldest and best selections is 'Honorine Joubert' a vigorous five-footer that produces masses of crystalline white, single flowers accented by a central cluster of golden stamens. A mass planting of 'Honorine' in the ground cover collection at Plantations reliably stops September garden visitors in their tracks. 'Max Vogel' is another vigorous five-footer that displays dense clusters of large, single pink flowers. 'Whirlwind', with its delicate semi-double white flowers, is one of my favorites. If your garden can't accommodate these very tall, vigorous growers, try 'Prince Henry', a diminutive grower that reaches only two feet in height and carries semi-double rosy purple flowers on wiry stems.

All the Anemone xhybrida selections are more clump-forming than either A. tomentosa or A. hupehensis. However, once well established, they will begin to move out from their original cluster of stems to form loose colonies. Fall anemones should be sited with care in a soil that drains well, since the fastest way to lose these plants is to let them sit in a wet site over winter. They are best moved in the spring. Like many plants that wait until fall to fully develop, fall anemones can be slow to emerge and begin active growth and can easily be mistaken for dead. Be patient-they will emerge!

The pink turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) is a sturdy native of the southeastern United States that, unlike anemones, enjoys wet feet and performs best in rich moist soil in full sun. The rose turtlehead (Chelone obliqua) is very similar, but the flowers are darker pink, and plants are less cold hardy. The pink turtlehead forms a nice clump of sturdy waxy green leaves carried in opposite ranks on stiffly upright two-foot-tall stems. In late August, the tops of these stems are decorated with dense clusters of pink tubular flowers, each peeking out from its enclosing calyx like an inquisitive turtle's head peering out from its shell. There is also a creamy white flowered form, 'Alba', and another selection with the enticing name of 'Hot Lips', which has darker foliage and richer pink flowers.

A well-behaved goldenrod that you may want to invite into your garden is a selection of the rough-stemmed goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) dubbed 'Fireworks'. Typically, S. rugosa reaches four to five feet in height and can run quite vigorously, forming large colonies of floppy hairy stems that are not particularly ornamental. 'Fireworks' was first noticed in the wild by Ken Moore of the North Carolina Botanical Garden, who was drawn to its shorter stature and more clump-forming habit. He brought the plant back to the garden for evaluation and later introduced it to gardeners through Niche Gardens Nursery.

'Fireworks' has been contently living at Plantations' peony garden for the last five years, requiring only mild removal of its running stems each spring to keep it in its designated spot. The three-foot-tall stems are unbranched for about 2/3 of their length. Then suddenly, they explode into many slender side shoots, each of which in turn carries an explosion of axillary branchlets coated with tiny yellow flowers. The effect is that of a star-shaped firework that continues to open outward in successive explosions. Its decorative habit and delicate flowers make this plant an exceptional addition to any fall garden. Another interesting goldenrod is 'Gold Spangles', which displays irregular gold splashings on its leaves. Surprisingly, this plant performs best in partial shade, where its two-foot-tall stems of jaunty gold-patterned leaves brighten up dark spots.

These are only a few of the fall flowers that can be seen at Plantations. Purple-leaved bugbane (Cimicifuga ramosa 'Hillside Black Beauty'), dwarf cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium), late-blooming plantain lily (Hosta tardiflora), and the magnificent pink flower heads of Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum 'Gateway') are also in bloom. Come look for them!

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