You can’t avoid flowers in the springtime. Most plants burst naturally into bloom as warm weather returns, with the flowers producing fruits and setting seed that will ripen over the summer and germinate during the following seasons.
But that doesn’t mean you have to forgo flowers in the fall. Annuals will keep pumping out blooms until cold weather turns them off. And perennials? Well, let’s take a look at just some of the most dazzling late bloomers.
No fall flower garden would be complete without hybrid Japanese anemones (Anemone x hybrida). Around Sonoma County, they bloom in September, with some sporadic follow-up bloom in late September to early October. They grow 3 to 4 feet tall on slender stems in a sunny to partly shady site with some summer water to get them through the seasonal drought. They’ll reward you in September with the most charming 3-inch-wide flowers with a cluster of bright yellow stamens in the centers. Depending on the cultivar, the petals may be white, pink, or purplish pink, but my favorite is a variety called “September Charm” with clear shell pink petals that are strikingly beautiful. Kept watered, the anemones will spread into a wide stand that produces a sea of these exquisite blossoms.
In 1961, botanists changed the name of the Chrysanthemum genus to Dendranthema, which caused such a horticultural uproar that botanists restored the name to Chrysanthemum again in 1995. Thank goodness, because our fall gardens just wouldn’t be the same without our mums — possibly the most beloved of all the fall flowers, all exhibiting typical fall colors: rusts, ochres, white, reddish browns, and yellows. We cut them and make big, poofy vases full. Ladies use them for corsages at football games. They are the essence of fall in a flower. It’s almost impossible to pick a favorite cultivar because there are so many flower forms of this perennial: cushion, pompon, button, decorative, single, spoon, quill, anemone, spider, cascade and exhibition. You choose.
Did you know that there are a range of autumn-blooming crocuses? So this genus is not only the first up and flowering in the spring, but has representatives that are the last to go to bed in the fall. One of the most popular species is Crocus sativus, the saffron crocus. The late September flower is pale pink to purplish mauve and the orange, feathery stigma, when dried, is our precious culinary saffron — which is why it’s no longer found in the wild. Saffron hunters plucked it to death. But it’s widely grown in cultivation.
Although not particularly showy, Kirengeshoma palmata, commonly called waxbells, is an interesting native of the mountains of Japan. It makes a 3-to 4-foot mound of large, maple-like leaves, and hangs out pale yellow, shuttlecock-shaped flowers in September. It likes shade and moist soil, so plant it where you can water it during summer’s drought.
Among trees, the floss silk tree (Chorisia speciosa) blooms with pink, rose, or purple star-like flowers in September and its subsequent fruits burst open into cottony masses of fluff. It likes full sun and some summer water and grows into a tall tree with a studded trunk. It’s perfectly suited to our climate.
The Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha) is persnickety, like its namesake Benjamin Franklin, and takes extra care to grow. It was discovered in Georgia by John Bartram, a friend of Franklin’s, who brought it to Philadelphia. It disappeared from the wild in 1790, and all Franklin Trees since are clones of Bartram’s rescue. It’s an exquisitely beautiful small tree, especially when its last white blooms in September are seen against its reddish purple senescing leaves. I tried growing it in Sebastopol, but it lasted only a couple of years. Maybe you’ll have more luck. It will be worth the effort.
From October to December, the Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo “Compacta”), a cousin of the madrone, hangs out pendulous clusters of white, urn-shaped flowers and bright red strawberry-like fruits at the same time, making quite a show. It’s an evergreen, like its cousin, and loves our coastal climate.
Among shrubs, definitely plant a Blue Mist (Caryopteris x clandonensis “Heavenly Blue”). It’s compact, growing from 2 to 3 feet wide and 2 feet tall, likes full sun, and produces scads of deep blue fringed flowers from August until December. Give it some summer water to keep it going strongly for its fall display.
Of course, nature in her profuse enthusiasm for flowers in all seasons, has more: escallonia, camellia, gardenia, chaste tree, and others, but the suggestions in this article may give you ideas for plantings this fall or next spring that mean your garden will not peter out just when harvest season rolls around. Your Thanksgiving table will always need a centerpiece, n’est pas?