Despite summer being nearly over, late summer and much of autumn can awaken interest and provide plenty of enjoyment before the curtain closes for winter. Two groups of plants can play a significant role. These are herbaceous perennials that wait quietly in the wings before giving late but stellar performances, and bulbs that appear out of nowhere for their brief but memorable cameo roles. These eventual extroverts merit consideration for your own garden to add a bit of drama in autumn.
Appeal: These plants provide extended interest in the garden and their sometimes sudden appearance can seem almost magical.
Exposure: These plants grow well in full sun to part shade, except gentian and tricyrtis, which require protection from the strong hot sun.
Soil: The bulbs (amaryllis, sternbergia and autumn crocus) do best in well-drained soil that retains some moisture when the plants are actively growing. Although difficult to work, stoney sites will discourage digging and depredation by hungry rodents. The perennials shown here thrive in fertile, moist but well-drained organic soil.
Care: When tending late bloomers remember their location when “off stage”, especially the bulbs. Mark their sites with labels or other indicators.
1- Solidago rugosa “fireworks”
A tough but graceful plant which is more compact at 3 ft tall. It creates a fountain of golden flowers on arching stems. Bloom time is September to October.
2- Gentiana sino-ornata (autumn gentian)
Low, foot wide mats of short, grassy leaves produce a mass of 2 – 4-inch electric-blue bells. Gentian is happiest in a well-drained, neutral to acidic soil. Try it in shallow pots or a rock garden. Blooms late August to October.
3- Helianthus salicifolius (willow-leaved sunflower)
Tall (up to 10 feet) and dynamic, with narrow leaves and exuberant sprays of 2 inch golden flowers. Tolerant of both dry and wet soil. Ripening seeds attract birds. Good fresh cut flowers. Blooms September to October.
4- Amaryllis belladonna (belladonna lily)
Bulb with fragrant pink flowers that appear in late summer on leafless 18-24 inch stems that seem to jump out of the ground. Leaves emerge in spring and die back in the heat of the summer. Needs a site that is warm and dry in late summer. Blooms August to September.
5- Tricyrtis formosana (toad lily)
Clump-forming, gently zigzagging, 2 foot stems bear their distinctive, freckled, pale pink flowers in shady locations. Glossy foliage adds textural interest all season. Blooms August to September.
6- Lobelia xspeciosa (lobelia)
Dark green, basal-leaf rosettes send up 2 to 3 foot spikes of intensely blue flowers in midsummer to early autumn. Stunning when contrasted with its brilliant red cousin Lobelia cardinalis. Blooms July to September
7- Anemone hupehensis var. Japonica (Japanese anemone)
Lusty, loose mounds of big, coarse leaves offer a background for wind-animated clusters of silky-sheened pink blooms on stems up to 4 feet tall. Spreads moderately when happy and requires little care. Blooms more heavily and over a longer period than previous selections. Can become invasive in some areas. Blooms late August to October.
8- Stenbergia lutea (fall daffodil)
The diminutive (rarely to 6 inches tall) but assertive elfin bulb with golden flowers that pop out of the ground in autumn. Foliage remains through the winter and disappears in spring. Tolerant of shade. Plant in early summer in large groups for greatest impact. Blooms September to October
9- Aconitum napellus
Monkshood has dark green, glossy leaves and 2 inch blue-violet flowers. It can be stunted by dry soil and is extremely poisonous. Blooms July to August.
10- Crocus speciosus (autumn crocus)
This small bulb barely reaches 6 inches high, but the colour carries across the garden. The easiest of the late blooming crocus to perennialize, it multiplies readily. Plant in variously sized groups for a more natural look. Blooms September to October.