We often think of trees as providing our primary source of fall color, or perhaps it might be the colorful Indian corn or pumpkins that come to mind. But there other sources of fall color too, in our perennial flowers. This goes beyond the hardier flowers that can withstand some frost and still retain their flowers with little damage but rather I am referring to the plants and their foliage itself.
Herbaceous perennial plants and a few annual plants can still put on a great show in the fall, but it depends on how early we get a killing freeze. If it gets too cold too early in the fall, the more tender foliage and stems are damaged and more likely just turn brown instead of getting a chance to show their fall colors. If the hard freeze holds off, quite a few plants actually do have some pretty nice fall color. Even a plant like Hosta, which we normally grow for its colorful summer foliage, can have great yellow-orange fall color in its foliage.
|Hosta fall color.||Pigsqueak fall color.|
A few of the most reliable plants to produce good fall color are Tall Tickseed (Coreopsis tripteris) and Pigsqueak (Bergenia cordifolia). Both of these plants produce a nice burgundy-red fall color. In the case of the Tickseed, the color holds until a killing freeze takes down the leaves and stems. But, the Pigsqueak is able to retain its fall color into the winter months and may even have the same color in the spring as the foliage is semi-evergreen. There is even a cultivar of Bergenia called ‘Winterglut’ which translates into ‘Winter Glow’. In the spring it develops magenta-pink flowers that help set off the reddish foliage. Balloon flower, (Platycodon) can have lovely orange-yellow fall color but once again it depends on when that killing freeze occurs. If it holds off it can put on a stunning display in the perennial flower garden.
|Tall Tickseed fall color.||Balloon flower fall color.|
Grasses, Ornamentals, & Edibles
Several grasses are known for their fall color, most notably Little Bluestem (Schizachirium scoparium), Flame Grass (Miscanthus purpurascens) and Chinese Silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis). Little bluestem is a native grass that is common in roadsides displaying a purplish fall color with small, silvery wispy seed heads. A new cultivar ‘MinBlueA’ sold as Blue Heaven™ is one of the best plants for our region. Developed at the University of MN, it has great late summer and fall color and has a much more upright habit than others that might be available. The many different cultivars of Miscanthus have quite large, silvery seed heads but the M. purpurascens in particular offers yellow-orange foliage and stems to contrast the silvery seed heads. Other grasses like Big Bluestem, Indian Grass, and Switchgrass can provide some native, fall color to the landscape as well.
|Little Bluestem in fall color.||Miscanthus fall color with surrounding trees.|
There are also a few other plants that we normally grow as annual bedding plants that are very cold tolerant and actually develop their best fall foliage color after the temperatures have cooled off in the fall. The most common is Ornamental or Flowering Kale (Brassica oleracea). While many of you have heard of the health benefits of eating kale, many cultivars are also great plants in the landscape. Once again it’s the foliage that is the primary attraction. Able to withstand temperatures down below 20° F, the kales can look good up until Thanksgiving in some years. Looking a bit like a loose head of cabbage, the inner leaves turn white, pink, red or purple over the course of the summer then become much more intensely colorful in the fall. Some cultivars have smooth leaf edges while others are much more dissected giving them a lacy appearance. Heads can be cut and used as decorations or you can add some to your salad to add color and nutrition. The other colorful, edible fall garden plant is Swiss Chard. It produces colorful petioles and leaf veins all summer long but in particular in the fall.
|Ornamental Kale.||Swiss Chard.|