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Late Bloomers:
Best Bets for Fall Flowers

By Skip Richter
Contributing Editor

In the spring, everyone is a gardener, and just about every plant is willing to grow and bloom. Plants that are best suited to other parts of the country are purchased and set out in the garden for a very brief moment of glory before they are incinerated by a Texas summer.

Our landscapes are typically a blaze of color in the spring. The remainder of the year we settle for various shades of green. This need not be.

When you design a landscape, keep the four seasons in mind. Spring is easy to paint with color. The other three seasons are more of a challenge. With a little planning you can include a blend of plants so your landscape looks good throughout most of the year.

There are certainly some tough plants that will bloom through a Texas summer. They can take the heat and still look great if they are provided a little supplemental watering. Some, such as repeat blooming roses, continue to bloom on through the fall season. But we'll leave them to another article.

We're going to focus on the plants that wait until late in the growing season to put on their show. As summer draws to a close, we enter our second growing season. Fall is a great gardening season as rain usually returns to Texas and temperatures start dropping back into the tolerable range. That's when the late bloomers take center stage. Here are some of the best bets for late season color in your Texas garden.

Angel's Trumpet
(Brugmansia)

Angel's Trumpet, known also by its proper name Brugmansia, is the perfect choice for a deck, poolside or patio. These South American cousins of our garden tomato and potato are a fairly dependable perennial if mulched well over winter. They reach 4 to 6 feet in height in one growing season. In late summer to fall, long pendulous, trumpet-shaped blooms in shades of apricot, yellow or white steal the landscape show, and offer a nice evening fragrance to an outdoor seating area. Plant Angel's Trumpet in a morning sun or partial shade location and mulch the roots well to help retain moisture. Hot afternoon sun really takes its toll on them. Fertilize the plants every few weeks to keep them vigorous and healthy. They will die to the ground during a cold winter but with a semi protected location and a thick layer of mulch will usually return the following spring in zones 8b and 9. Angel's Trumpet also does well in a large container such as a half whiskey barrel.

Copper Canyon Daisy
(Tagetes lemmonii)

Copper Canyon Daisy produces a 3 to 4 foot tall mound of finely cut foliage with a very strong citrusy-pine odor. Brush against it as you walk by and the air will fill with the fragrance. In fall, the plant absolutely explodes with a profusion of single bright yellow blooms about an inch in diameter, which are a great source of nectar for several species of beneficial insects. I always hesitate to use the words "plant" and "deer proof" in the same sentence (because I'm convinced they'd gag themselves to prove me wrong!), but this one is as close as you can get. Give it full sun and good drainage. It is a superb choice for informal perennial beds or water thrifty landscapes. Hardy in zone 8 and south.

Fall Aster
(Symphyotrichum oblongifolium)

Fall aster is a dependable performer in our southern climate, and hardy throughout the state. Each fall, the 2 to 3 foot mounded plants are covered with 1-1/2 inch lavender flowers with yellow centers. This perennial insists on having good soil drainage, and detests being overfertilized or overwatered. They are a must for waterwise landscaping. For a stunning fall show, plant them in front of purple blooming Mexican bush sage or yellow blooming Mexican mint marigold. They also make a good cutting flower adding a sea of lavender fill for an arrangement. Cut plants back in spring to maintain a dense growth habit.

Mexican Mint Marigold
(Tagetes lucida)

Equally at home in the herb garden and flower border, Mexican Mint Marigold does double duty as a culinary herb and beautiful fall flowering plant. This relative of the standard garden marigold is a dependable perennial in zones 8 and 9, returning each year to form a mounded plant 2 to 3 feet in height. In fall the plant is covered with a multitude of small yellow, single 1/2 inch blooms. Plant it in a well-drained soil with full sun for best results. The leaves have a distinctive, pleasing anise-like scent (similar to those black jelly beans!). They are used in herbal teas and as a substitute for tarragon in herbal vinegars, salad dressings and sauces. Mexican mint marigold looks good interplanted with fall blooming Mexican bush sage.

Mountain Sage
(Salvia regla)

Mountain sage is a unique addition to the fall landscape. This 3 to 5 foot shrub is a late season bloomer, bursting forth with orange-red blooms in response to the shortening day length of fall. Hummingbirds are attracted to the tubular blooms. This plant prefers a bright, part shade location and demands protection from the hot afternoon sun. Plant it on the east side of a taller shrub or shading structure like a fence or building. Not dependably hardy above zone 8b.

Philippine Violet
(Barleria cristata)

Philippine violet is a root hardy perennial that forms an attractive upright shrub reaching about 3 feet tall. The dark green foliage is very attractive and virtually pest and disease free. However, in late summer to fall, the real show begins as the upright plant stems load up with an abundance of blue flowers. A white blooming form is also available. Keep the soil moderately moist and mulch plants well to protect them over the winter as this plant is hardy only to zone 8b. This plant is currently underutilized but sure to grow in popularity fast!

Mexican Bush Sage
(Salvia leucantha)

Mexican Bush Sage, native to Mexico, is a superb perennial hardy in zones 7b and south. From spring to late summer, the bush makes an attractive mound of narrow, strappy gray-green leaves on upright shoots. In late summer through fall, tall bloom spikes appear for a stunning show that also happens to be quite popular with hummingbirds. The standard type sports a purple calyx with a protruding white center flower. Also available is a form with both purple calyx and purple flower. A semi-dwarf variety 'Santa Barbara' reaches only about 3 feet in height and spread. 'Santa Barbara' makes it possible to now grow Mexican bush sage in areas too confined for the standard type which can spread to 5 feet high and 6 feet wide if pushed with extra water and fertilizer. Mexican bush sage prefers full sun to part shade. The blooms also dry well, retaining a light purple-lavender color.

Coral Vine or Queen's Wreath
(Antigonon leptopus)

This drought tolerant native of Mexico is a dependable perennial vine with heart shaped leaves and a vigorous growth habit, so give it plenty of room. It is the best thing that could happen to a chain link fence and also will fill an arbor once the weather really heats up. Coral vine dies back to the ground with the first frost. In late summer and fall, it produces striking lacy clusters of vivid pink blooms that hang down like delicate chains. It is virtually pest and disease proof, but does like well-drained soils and a full sun to part shade exposure. Coral vine supports our important pollinator insects like bumble bees. A white blooming form is also available.

Desert Trumpet Vine
(Podranea ricasoliana)

Desert trumpet vine is a sprawling arching plant that seems confused as to whether it wants to be a shrub or a vine. With a little direction in the form of a few early to mid summer shearings, it will make a nice arching mound of a shrub. In late summer it begins to produce blooms similar in shape to its cousins Catalpa, Desert Willow and Yellow Bells Esperanza (Tecoma stans). The pink blooms with burgundy markings are borne in clusters at the terminal end of the shoots. The blooms continue to the first frost providing an extended season of flowering. This plant is only marginally hardy in zone 8b so keep it mulched well for winter protection, or grow as an annual.

Chrysanthemum 'Country Girl'
(aka `Clara Curtis')

Everyone is familiar with mums for fall decoration. While several types can be coaxed into surviving out in the landscape, one of my favorites is 'Country Girl,' also known as 'Clara Curtis.' In fall, this low-sprawling plant is covered with 3 inch single daisy-like light pink flowers with bright yellow centers. Shearing or pinching the plant in mid summer followed by a little fertilizer and water can help make it more dense, but still allow it room to sprawl. It is best in an informal perennial border in soil with compost added. Provide a full sun to part day shade location and maintain moderate soil moisture. 'Country Girl' is hardy throughout the state.

Sweet Autumn Clematis
(Clematis ternifolia aka paniculata)

Most types of clematis are best left on the pages of seed catalogues if you garden in Texas. Sweet autumn clematis is an exception. This native of Japan sprawls in an unmannerly fashion over whatever support you provide. In late summer to early fall, it explodes in a billowy white mass of quarter sized white blooms. For best results, add a couple of inches of compost to the soil and maintain moderate moisture. While the plant loves a sun to part shade location, the roots do best if shaded by a low growing groundcover or a blanket of leaves or wood chips. Dependably hardy throughout the state, sweet autumn clematis does best in the eastern half of the state.

Fall Obedient Plant, False Dragonhead
(Physostegia virginiana)

I must say that this is one plant I had to pause before adding to the list. It certainly produces beautiful lavender/pink blooms with dark lavender/purple markings in late summer and fall. The blooms are intriguing as each individual bloom on a stalk can be moved to the side and will stay in that position when you let go, hence the name obedient plant. My hesitancy about including it in this listing is because of its willingness to take over the planting bed if provided very moist soil. It is better kept just moderately moist to curb its enthusiasm. Underground vertical barriers are certainly an option as well. Despite its desire to wander, I think it is worth including in the garden, especially in the eastern half of the state. Just don't encourage it! It is a dependably hardy perennial in all Texas zones. Several varieties, including a white blooming form are available.

Maximilian Sunflower
(Helianthus maximiliana)

As long as we are talking about plants that are willing to roam, let's mention Maximilian sunflower. This relative of garden sunflowers is actually a perennial. In fall the 3 inch yellow blooms appear spiraling upward along the 4 to 6 feet tall stalks. This planting is native from Texas northward into the central plains states and is thus a dependable perennial throughout Texas. It is typically found along ditches where the soil stays moist for extended periods of time. In a garden, withholding moisture can help make it less aggressive and a little less lanky.

Climbing Carolina Aster
(Aster carolinianus)

This plant is not a common ornamental in Texas gardens, but it deserves wider use. Carolina aster doesn't really climb, it sprawls and leaps with long shoots to more than 10 feet. It can be grown up a trellis or allowed to meander among taller plants in a cottage border. In early fall the light purple blooms begin to appear and by mid fall it will be covered in the tiny 1-inch blooms. It is hardy through all of the state except the panhandle. In southern areas it may remain semi evergreen but should still be sheared back in late winter to encourage fresh new growth and better fall bloom. While not for tidy garden beds this deserves a place in less formal gardens or perhaps pushing up through a rough trellis or fence out on the perimeter of the garden.

Cigar Plant or Candy Corn Plant
(Cuphea micropetala)

Native to Mexico, the cigar plant is perennial in zones 8 and south. The long upright stems grow to about 4 feet tall, but can reach 6 feet in ideal conditions with plenty of soil moisture. You can shear it back a little before mid summer and thereby encourage branching and a busier habit. The plant may bloom sporadically in spring but waits until late summer to fall to put on its real display of long tubular blooms that open a light yellow color and then darken to a bright orange red. This plant is a butterfly and hummingbird magnet. It needs moderate soil moisture and a full sun exposure.

Goldenrod
(Solidago)

Goldenrod, often mistakenly blamed for the arrival of fall's allergy season, is another sign of summer's end. Since they grow wild, I have not planted them in my landscape, but enjoy them blooming in wild areas around the property. Like other tall late bloomers, goldenrod is best planted in the back of the perennial bed. Hardy throughout the state goldenrod makes a great cut flower and provides food for several beneficial insect species. There are several species and a few varieties on the market including one that grows to less than 2 feet tall.

Oxblood Lilies or Schoolhouse lilies
(Rhodophiala bifida)

The vanguard of bulbs to signal the end of summer is the oxblood or schoolhouse lily. These bold bulbs push up through the fried remains of a summer landscape in early fall with the arrival of the first good rain. Their bloom period is short but their amaryllis like blooms are worth it. Then the blooms fade and thin strappy foliage appears to replenish the bulbs until dying back with the return of warm weather in late spring. Oxblood lilies do well in full sun to deciduous shade.

Red Spider Lily or Hurricane Lily
(Lycoris radiata)

Not far behind the oxblood lilies are the blooms of spider lily, which also emerge prior to the foliage to display their spidery red blooms. Foliage will follow to replenish the bulbs for another performance next fall. Red spider lilies prefer a part day sun location.

Short Day Plants
Some fall blooming plants get their cue from the changing day length of fall. Like poinsettias the shorter days of fall cue them to bloom. They are often called "short day" plants. Actually it is not the short days but the long nights that cue them to bloom. If they don't have a long period of darkness they won't know to produce blooms.

Therefore lights at night can fool them into thinking it is not yet time to flower. I have more than once seen a Mexican mint marigold, mountain sage, or copper canyon daisy that was prevented from blooming by a security light or porch light nearby. So plant them away from such fixtures to insure that they bloom on cue.

Fall planting season is just around the corner. Why not plan on adding a few of these late season performers to your landscape and extend the color season from late summer on through fall?

 


 
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