Autumn. It is indubitably autumn. I can no longer pretend it is just the summer slowly waning and that winter is still a long way off. For most people, autumn is synonymous with leaves colouring to fiery hues.
However those of us in coastal areas may carry that mental image but the reality can fall well short. Inland areas get much better autumn colour because the nights cool down more rapidly and it is the sharp drop in temperatures which triggers the colouring response in most deciduous plants as much as the declining day length. The moderating effect of the sea means we drift far more slowly between seasons and the leaves are inclined to turn brown and fall, skipping much of the colouring process.
Our extensive use of evergreen plants in this country also mitigates against fantastic mass displays of autumn colour. Our native plants are all evergreen and in a generally benign gardening climate, we tend to favour evergreen exotics as well. I have met many gardeners who shun deciduous plants because they are allegedly messy and lack winter interest, which has always seemed a bit myopic to me. We are never going to rival countries like Canada with its native maples when it comes to a mass blaze of autumn tones.
It is the autumn bulbs that signal the change in season for me. There are so many pretty seasonal flowers coming through now. These are triggered into bloom by a drop in temperature, declining day length and some by late summer rain – don’t laugh at that last one.
Gardeners in this country tend to focus on the spring bulbs – from the early snowdrops through the snowflakes, bluebells, tulips, daffodils, anemones and ranunculus. These are readily available and marketed widely. They also flower at a time when the majority of trees and shrubs are blossoming forth.
The autumn bulbs have never captured the market in the same manner yet they bring freshness to the garden at a time when many plants are looking tired or passing over. I find them a wonderful antidote to the autumnal despondency of declining day length. There they are, all pretty and perky, just coming into their prime.
I often feature selected autumn bulbs in Plant Collector because this is their time to shine. As I wander around the garden, I see carpets of Cyclamen hederafolium (flowers only so far – the leaves have yet to appear) and taller spires of the autumn peacock iris, Moraea polystachya, which is inclined to seed itself around a little. This lovely lilac moraea has one of the longest flowering seasons of any bulb I know. The common old belladonnas are already passing over but I enjoy their blowsy display while it lasts. We use them in less tamed areas on the road verge.
Over the years, I have waged a campaign to convince people of the merits of the ornamental oxalis, many of which are autumn stars. Call them by their common overseas name of wood sorrel, if the mere mention of oxalis makes you shudder. The range of different species is huge. By no means are all of them nasty weeds and many are not the slightest bit invasive. We have them flowering in white, yellow, apricot bicolour, a whole range of pinks, lilac, lavender and even crimson. Some are perfectly garden-safe. I can vouch for their good behaviour after decades in the garden here. Others I keep in pots – preferably wide, shallow pots for best display.
And nerines are the major feature of our autumn rockery. The majority of these are sarniensis hybrids with big heads of flowers. By no means are all of them the common red of Nerine fothergillii or the strong growing pink Nerine bowdenii which comes later in the season. We have some lovely smoky tones, reds deepening to violet hues, a remarkable lolly pink – the colour of a highlighter felt pen, two tone sugar candy and even heading to apricot. Nerines are renowned as a good cut flower but I never cut them. There is only one stem per bulb and I would rather admire them in the garden than indoors.
Then there are the bold colchicums which, contrary to popular belief, are not autumn crocus but certainly put on a splendid show with a succession of flowers from each corm. You have to go a long way back in the botanical family tree to get any relationship between colchicums and the proper autumn crocus. The latter is a much more delicate and transient performer whose flowers appear at the same time as its foliage. Currently, we are enjoying both in bloom.
Some bulbs are quite transient in flower but no less delightful for all that. If I am ever forced by declining health and aged frailty to trade down from a large garden, I can see that it would bulbs that I would chose to grow. I love the way they mark the seasons and how there can always be a different one coming into its time to star.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.