(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 17, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Most gardeners look forward to spring when garden centers are bursting at the seams with new plants and possibilities for their gardens. They rush hither and thither gathering up beautiful specimens and bedding pants. They plant them in containers and in strategic places in the garden, and then they sit back to view their handiwork. For a while all is well, and the gardeners puff up, sit back, and look around in a self-satisfied manner, completely convinced that their gardening skills and talents are extraordinary.
But then, summer comes along. To their dismay, most of the pretty spring flowers become scruffy and unkempt as summer's heat and humidity take their toll. The gardens and the gardeners wither. The gardens struggle along, and the gardeners decide to spend more time on indoor pursuits.
Some wise gardeners knew that this would happen. They had observed their gardens for years, and they knew which plants would endure the heat and live to put on a show in the fall. They knew that, like gardeners, the earth breathes a sigh of relief as the cooler breezes of autumn banish the blistering heat of summer. Those plants that have been biding their time burst into bloom. Gardeners who planned for this time venture back outside to enjoy the revitalized garden and pleasant fall weather.
Woody perennials make up the backbone of the show, especially in gardens in the Southern parts of the United States. Many of these plants are evergreen and bloom year-round in tropical climates. In more northern regions, however, they get killed to the ground by cold winter weather. In spring they begin growing again, for their roots are hardy. They spend most of the summer growing to blooming size, and then in fall they put on their most colorful show. In the most northerly regions, these plants are treated as annuals.
Firespike (Odontonema tubaeforme syn. O. strictus) is one of the most beautiful of these "woodies" and is decked out in its showiest finery for the fall season. Large avocado-like leaves provide the perfect background for the showy blossoms. In fall it stands about 4-feet feet tall and is adorned with tubular, bright red flowers that almost smother the 12-inch spikes.
Another beautiful "woody" is firebush (Hamelia patens). Native to central and southern Florida, the West Indies, and parts of Central America and South America, firebush has been putting out its clusters of reddish-orange, tubular blossoms most of the summer. Now its leaves are beginning to turn red, and it is getting ready to go out in a blaze of glory. Sometimes called scarlet bush or hummingbird bush, this perennial is a favorite nectar plant for butterflies and hummingbirds.
The biggest show-off in the fall border is forsythia sage (Salvia madrensis). Standing at attention near the back of the border, clear yellow flowers are held aloft to herald the season. Twelve-inch spikes of blossoms decorate the ends of every stem. The show will last until first frost.
Other salvias, too, flaunt their beauty during the autumn. Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) delights gardeners with spikes of purple and white or solid purple flowers for about a month. Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) beckons butterflies and hummers with bright red, tubular flowers, and we humans often pluck a leaf and enjoy its fruity fragrance. ‘Indigo Spires' (Salvia farinacea ×longispicata) has returned for a grand finale after its midsummer pruning and feeding.
Turks' Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus) has adorned itself with bright red flowers that hang from its limbs in glorious profusion. Drooping spiraled blossoms that resemble flowers of an unopened hibiscus dangle from the branches as if the bush had adorned itself with long drooping earrings in preparation for a ball.
Lavender flowers and golden berries of golden dewdrop (Duranta repens) delight humans and critters alike. Flush after flush of royal purple blooms are borne on the princess flower (Tibouchina urvilleana). Bright circles of orange, stem-hugging flowers decorate the lion's ear (Leonotis leonurus). Blue flowers that resemble a group of blue butterflies congregating on the stems fill the branches of blue butterfly bush or blue glory bower (Rotheca myricoides ‘Ugandense').
Among all these fall-flowering woody perennials are the ornamental grasses with flowers and seed heads that add form, movement, and texture. Our beautiful native muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) sends up characteristic frothy pink plumes, and seed heads of other grasses wave in the breeze.
Having a beautiful fall garden is well within the capabilities of most gardeners. If these beauties do not currently bloom in your garden, now is a good time to remedy that situation. Get out to the nurseries, find them, find a suitable place, and plant them. Next fall, you can sit back and bask in the glory of it all.
Thanks to Flicker for her image of Salvia madrensis.