Welcome to the Garden

Notes from the Garden - August, September, October 2013

The end of summer is near, but first we must navigate the hot, muggy days of August. I love the Garden at this time of year as we transition from summer into fall and our landscapes begin to change and prepare for a winter’s nap.

August: Joe-Pye Weed
Joe-Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum) is a wonderful native, herbaceous perennial that loves the heat of the summer and tends to wait until the hottest, muggiest days of the year to start flowering. Dark green leaves are arranged in whorls around purplish stems on plants that grow four to ten feet tall, depending upon cultivar. They are easy to grow, able to take both dry and wet soils in full sun to part shade. They make a wonderful backdrop for smaller perennials and are truly magnificent when they begin to flower in late summer.

The flower buds begin to expand in August. Individual blooms are dome-shaped and appear to keep expanding as they open in shades of pink to mauve to purple and can be as big as a small soccer ball when fully open. I call them the monarch’s best friend, as their large flowers open just as the monarch begins its migration south and provide a wealth of nectar for migrating butterflies.

Since the species grows so large, it is difficult to site properly in most gardens. I recommend ‘Gateway’ as the best cultivar to plant. We have several groupings of ‘Gateway’ in the Garden that have performed admirably over the years. New, more compact cultivars named ‘Glenda’ and ‘Little Joe’ show great promise as well for residential gardens. 

September: Fall Wildflowers
Long have we touted visiting the Mathews Nature Trail to see the wealth of wildflowers that emerge in spring when the abundance of species, colors, forms and textures is amazing. However, we tend to forget that fall is also a great time to see wildflowers, and our Garden has many fall blooming genera. While spring has a wide palette of colors that shine, fall is primarily dominated by purple and golds.

Many plants in the Composite or Aster family bloom in the fall, including New England aster, goldenrod, swamp sunflower and several species of Rudbeckia. The deep, royal purple flowers of New England aster (Aster novae-angeliae) cover the plants like small daisies. Growing eighteen to thirty-six inches tall, they make excellent companions to taller growing Helianthus (sunflower) species such as narrow-leaf sunflower (H. angustifolia), common sunflower (H. annuus) and giant sunflower (H. maximilianii).

Another wonderful yellow fall-blooming wildflower is goldenrod (Solidago rugosa). Goldenrod has been mistakenly blamed for seasonal allergy outbreaks, but ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) is the culprit, not goldenrod. At one time goldenrod was the official state flower of Alabama, before Camellia enthusiasts petitioned Montgomery.  It is a wonderful low-maintenance, beautiful wildflower that should be used more.

October: American beautyberry
While the first frost visits the Garden at the end of the month, several plants are already showing beautiful fruits, though they may be a bit camouflaged by foliage. One of the most glorious fruit-producing shrubs is American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), a shrub native to much of the southeastern US. In the wild, this plant grows at the forest’s edge, getting some sunlight but also a bit of filtered shade to protect young plants. Shrubs grow four to seven feet tall with an equal spread, but can be cut back severely to control their size. Leaves are dull green and flowers are pale pink to lavender, emanating from the leaf axils along arching branches. Unimpressive flowers are hidden by coarse-textured foliage. However, the leaves have a hard time hiding brilliantly colored fruit clusters that become visible in October. These bright purple fruits are like no other fruit cluster you will see - vivid, purple berries in dense clusters around each pair of leaves all along the branch.

As the month progresses, leaves change from green to yellow and then drop off with the first frost, leaving only the purple berries. Branches can be cut for use in arrangements or left for the birds, which love the fruits. A white-fruiting form called ‘Lactea’ is striking with pearl-white berries. At the Garden, the two forms grow side by side near the Damson Aquatic Garden, and it is beautiful to see the two colors weaving together.