Fall is a vibrant time, and we celebrate its glowing colors sharpened by crisp air, the joy of harvesting the fruits of one’s labors, and the sharing of this bounty with family and friends. As we turn the corner from summer into fall, nature sends forth a last burst of blooms, baskets full of fruit, and an array of seed heads and berries that glow in the sun’s low angle. Mother Nature has dipped her paint brush into a palette of jewel tones for a crowning glory of golds, reds, yellows, and purples found in our native sugar maples and oaks, while meadows and fields are imbued in paler, dusky shades. The superb color effects of the landscape at large can be mimicked in our beds and borders.
The line up for fall color in the perennial border is dominated by members of the daisy or compositae family, as it is called. The “A, B, Cs” of the compositae family are asters, boltonias, and chrysanthemums, all mainstays of the autumn season. Boltonia asteroides, commonly called false aster, is a tall perennial with bluish-green foliage profusely sprinkled with tiny daisy-like flowers. It is useful in naturalized areas or at the back of a border. For larger flowers and a tighter habit, consider ‘Snowbank.’ Another aster relative for the back of the border is the native sneezeweed, Helenium autumnale, with a prominent dome-like yellowy-green center surrounded by bright yellow petals. It is called sneezeweed, as the flowers and leaves were dried and powdered and used like snuff. The autumnal palette provides an opportunity to use complementary colors like purple and orange that we might not choose in another season.
A choice perennial that transits summer into fall is the native coneflower, Echinacea. Over the last few years the prolific Itsaul Nursery in Atlanta has produced coneflowers in novel colors, with a light rose scent for their Big Sky Series. While I’m not usually keen on flower colors that nature didn’t intend, the echinaceas from Itsaul are compelling. They have crossed E. purpurea with E. paradoxa producing color choices to suit any garden. A few highlights from the series are: ‘Sunrise,’ with pale butter yellow petals that fade to cream with a greenish center cone that turns a warm gold as it ages; ‘Sundown’ has sunset shades of rosy russet-orange around a warm burnt orange cone; ‘Twilight’ offers rosy red petals circling an unusual glowing burgundy red center; ‘After Midnight’ is a dwarf form at 12 inches, with dark, magenta petals around a red-black center; and ‘Harvest Moon’ has soft golden petals that fade to creamy yellow around a rusty-orange cone. Echinaceas are low maintenance, well-behaved plants, that love the sun, are drought tolerant, attract bees and butterflies, and make good cut flowers—who could ask for more!