The Drift into Autumn

By the end of summer, many gardens can be looking rather green and sometimes a little tired. This is especially true where gardeners depend on woody trees and shrubs for seasonal flowers. There are not many woody plants that peak flower in late summer to early autumn. I guess we should be grateful that our climate is such that we manage to stay green throughout summer, even in a year of relative drought. But if you are keen on flowers, it can seem a little flat.
In times gone by, annuals were more popular and many gardeners raised their own seed to enable them to continue flowering plants throughout the seasons. Potted colour has taken this place but can be an expensive option. Mark’s father used to raise African marigolds every year to plant out for late summer interest in the rockery. This was a tradition I gladly dispensed with, having something of a hate relationship with marigolds. Definitely not up my list of desirable flowers.
But I went for a walk around the nursery and garden to see what is bravely putting up fresh flowers at this time of the year. Somewhat unfairly, I ignored the hardworking plants which just go on and on flowering – the hydrangeas, pansies, dahlias, begonias, crinum, Rose Flower Carpet Coral and a few of the other roses, and impatiens. They do a splendid job but they can lack the oomph of fresh, seasonal flowers in full flight.
In the nursery, I found three species camellias which flower every year well before the autumn sasanquas. Sinensis, the green tea camellia (yes you can brew your own fresh green tea if you wish) is a March flowerer. It has little flowers which resemble clusters of stamens in either pink or white and is certainly not showy but quite charming in an understated way. Even less known is Camellia puniceiflora which most readers will probably have never heard of. Its flowers are the size of a thumbnail at best and resemble perfect, tiny, pink daisies with a yellow centre. Fortunately the bush is small leafed and pendulous in growth so it does show its flowers off but you need to look reasonably closely at this little gem. More showy is Camellia microphylla, another small leafed species but with masses of white flowers starting now. It is one I have debated about using as a neat hedge because it has such bushy and compact growth.
The Australian lemon myrtle, Backhousia citriodora, is in flower. It makes a large shrub to small tree with rather nice velvety red new growth in spring but it is the masses of fluffy, white flowers in late summer and its wonderfully aromatic foliage which make it worth growing. Apparently the oil is extracted commercially and when you rub a leaf between your fingers or sniff the flowers you can understand why. It is deliciously lemon scented.
There are always vireya rhododendrons in flower in the garden. They can be frustrating because they don’t have a predictable flowering season. The urge to flower is not triggered by day length or temperature as is the case with most flowering shrubs. They come from the tropics where day length and temperature are pretty consistent all year round. But if you have enough of these plants in your garden, you can almost guarantee that some will have fresh flowers for nigh on twelve months of the year.
There were not many more woody plants that chose to flower in early autumn. In the climbing group, the lapagerias, or Chilean bellflowers, have started their flowering season and will continue for many months to come. These can take a while to get established in the garden, but once they have stopped sulking and put up strong growths, it is hard to think of another evergreen climber which is so easy and obliging without being a threat to the spouting or the chimney. The commonest colour is a deep pinky red (rosea), but they can also be found in pure white and a whole range of pink shades in between.
In the perennial and annual line, the sedums, angelica, amaranthus and asters are the standout performers this week. I get a bit sniffy about sedums, not being a fan of succulent-y type plants, but they do put up a very good late summer display. The angelica that is looking particularly striking as a border plant is not the common shiny one but a taller, purple flowered species which I think is probably gigas from northern Asia. I am fond of asters (michaelmas daisies), most of which flower in autumn and we have a very fetching lilac blue form which justifies its place in the garden at this time every year. And the amaranthus, or love-lies-bleeding, self seed in the rockery – dangerously so if I don’t deadhead most of them early enough – but then add some height and drama as summer drifts into autumn.
But the bottom line is that yet again it is the bulbs that are the drop dead gorgeous seasonal interest. From bare earth, a carpet of blooms can appear miraculously quickly. Sure, some like the autumn crocus or colchicums have a short season but that season is so spectacular and welcome that we don’t mind. The colchicums are not even related to crocus (which are spring flowering) but being triggered by autumn rains, they suddenly spring into a carpet of lilac pink blooms before any foliage appears. They will be all finished in a few weeks, except for the foliage which will make a green carpet in winter, but while in flower they are show stoppers.
The African blood lily (sometimes called elephant’s ears but properly referred to as Haemanthus coccineus) also has a fairly short flowering season with completely surprising large red paintbrushes appearing from bare soil but the flowers are followed by enormous fleshy leaves which lie flat to the soil, resembling the ears of the elephant in fact, and are every bit as startling as the flowers throughout winter.
The nerines are just starting to bloom. These have a place in floristry because the blooms are relatively long lived but we generally just leave ours in congested clumps half in and half out of the soil where they are a mainstay of our autumn garden year in and year out. I get irritated by their somewhat scruffy foliage come spring time but forgive them again when they light up the garden at this time of the year. They are somewhat classier and more refined (and have a much greater range in flower colour and size) but like similar growing conditions to their larger, distant cousins the belladonna lilies or amaryllis. We tend to regard the common belladonnas as roadside plants where they can flaunt their nakedness to all the passers by.
The charming autumn form of the peacock iris, moraea polystachya, is flowering and will continue to do so for quite some time as it opens down its stems. I am a bit of a sucker for that pretty shade of lilac blue and the simplicity of the three petalled form with a yellow centre is infinitely charming. This is a bulb which gently seeds down in the rockery without ever becoming invasive.
And how could I bypass the delightful miniature cyclamen? Hederifolium (sometimes referred to as neapolitana) is mass flowering wherever it can. The prettiest of pink or white flowers with not a single leaf visible yet. They are a mainstay of our autumn garden.
Some of the pretty oxalis are invasive and need to be treated with care as garden plants but do not let the horrors of the common weedy ones put you off a genus of plants which offers a large range of autumn flowering delights. As long as they do not stage a takeover bid by seeding too prolifically, bulbs with aspirations to world domination can be kept permanently confined to pots. And by no means all oxalis are invasive. We would not be without our collection of about 25 different forms which come in sequence from now until mid winter.
You may have to search a bit harder to find the autumn performers for the garden but it is worth it to celebrate the progression of the gardening year.