Favorites for fall planting and planning

Great gardeners are nature lovers. They form affectionate attachments to their favorite plants. They even talk to them.

Picture Luther Burbank on one knee, promising that if his blackberries would quit making thorns, he’d protect them. I knew a grape grower in Calistoga who would encourage his vines to be more prolific by sweet-talking them. And I flatter my Gruss an Coburg rose when she’s looking particularly gorgeous in hopes she’ll blush even more.

What ornamental plants attract the gardener’s eye this way? It’s entirely personal. Like a friend you enjoy being with or a pet you love, your special plants are simply those that catch your fancy.

But there are some plants that are likely to fall into this category, no matter your tastes. These choice plants sell out fast, so if you are interested in any of them, it would be wise to purchase them ASAP, even if they don’t ship until next year.

Hesperantha coccinea (Nate Napierala)
Hesperantha coccinea (Nate Napierala)

Let’s start with the perennial crimson flag lily (Hesperantha coccinea, also known as Schizostylis coccinea), an African native found in the wild in damp meadows and stream banks from South Africa to Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and Zimbabwe. In Sonoma County, it can take full sun in the west county, but it likes partial shade in the hotter parts of the eastern hills and valleys. In all cases, it needs consistently moist soil during the growing season, but water can be reduced during wet winters.

This iris-family plant is a marvel. For most of the spring and summer, it’s an unprepossessing clutch of 18-inch lance-like leaves held in a clump about 1 or 2 feet across. Then, in late August through October, when everything else is finishing up and shutting down, it sends up flower spikes, each opening from four to 14 bright scarlet flowers resembling miniature gladiolus, signaling a triumphant farewell to the year just past. “Showy” is an understatement.

It’s available at Enter Hesperantha coccinea in the search box.

If you’ve ever seen the silktassel bush (Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’) when it’s hung its catkins out to be pollinated, you’ve probably been stopped short by its exuberant beauty.

Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’ (Sean A. O’Hara)
Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’ (Sean A. O’Hara)

Where the plant likes its spot (and it’s native to coastal California, so heads up, Bodega Bay), it produces a myriad 10-inch white catkins — slim, cylindrical flower clusters — that hang straight down in a dazzling display during the winter. It’s drought-tolerant during our rainless summers, so maintenance just involves trimming dead leaves and bare shoots. It’s an evergreen climber. At the coast, it can take full sun, but in the hot interior, it likes partial shade.

You can find it at our local California Flora Nursery ( at 2990 Somers St. in Fulton. Call 707-528-8813.

If you need a plant that gives blazing color all season, even when it’s out of flower, plant Aralia cordata ‘Sun King.’ Its leaves are a brilliant lime green that stands out even when it’s planted in full shade. And the color of this perennial’s leaves persists from spring through fall. White flowers in summer turn into dark berries for the birds in fall. It can brighten a dull passage in the garden like a searchlight.

You can find it at Just enter its name in the search box.

Iris douglasiana ‘Canyon Snow.’ All species of native iris can work well in a fire-safe landscape. (CountryMouse)
Iris douglasiana ‘Canyon Snow.’ All species of native iris can work well in a fire-safe landscape. (CountryMouse)

Residents of coastal California from the south coast up into Oregon know the dainty flowers of the Douglas irises that appear in woodlands and grassy slopes in early spring. Iris douglasiana ‘Canyon Snow’ was a selection made at the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden in 1978. Its flowers are a large 4 inches across and are snow-white with golden centers. It’s perfectly at home in Sonoma County, needing little water, and it grows well in full sun to partial shade. Clumps are a foot tall and expand to 4 feet across.

It’s sold online at Enter Iris douglasiana ‘Canyon Snow’ in the search box and you’ll find it in the second row as you scroll down.

Few plants are as enchanting as the native American orchids, mountain lady’s slipper (Cypripedium montanum) and yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum). Both have softly rounded, slipper-like flowers that look like a woodland sprite should appear to slide her little foot inside and dance away. (A word of caution: If you see these growing in the wild, do not disturb them. Too many are killed by unschooled hikers who think they can bring a specimen home. Only buy plants from a nursery or other reliable source.)

Cypripedium montanum (Henry Mulligan/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)
Cypripedium montanum (Henry Mulligan/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)

C. montanum has a white flower and grows best in the Pacific Northwest, from northern California to Alaska. Give it partial shade in moist woodsy soil. C. parviflorum is bright yellow and is found across North America in partial shade. It likes woodlands, wetlands, prairies and meadows.

Find C. montanum by following this link: C. parviflorum is sold at nurseries across the continent.

Sesamun indicum. (P Jeganathan)
Sesamun indicum. (P Jeganathan)

Let’s finish with an annual worth sowing in your garden: black sesame (Sesamun indicum), which produces foxglove-like flowers early in the season, followed by seedpods of nutritious, sweet sesame seeds you can eat raw, toasted or sprinkled on the surface of breads or pastries. The black seeds are sweeter than the lighter-colored varieties. It’s a native of Africa and now widely used in India and Asia. Place it in full sun near the garden hose, because it likes constantly moist soil when starting out, but then is drought-tolerant.

You can find seed at by entering Sesamum indicum in the search box.

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