End of season: late-bloomers, musical chairs and bulbs

Late-bloomers are precious, a final fling before the protective mantle of winter descends to slow the rhythm of our landscape. 

Cimicifuga americana, with long racemes of creamy white flowers, is the late-season winner for me this year. I found a monarch butterfly at the plant on October 24 – that was my last sighting of a monarch - and as of two days ago, there were still a few bees and other insects on the wing enjoying the nectar. The constant rain has put a bit of a damper on that parade, but the Cimicifuga still looks fresh and inviting. 

From the same species, the somewhat more showy Cimicifuga simplex ‘Atropurpurea Group’ includes various popular cultivars (with names like ‘Brunette’ and ‘Black Beauty’). It peaked in September.  It is a beautiful plant, with dark, purplish leaves, but not native to us.  C. simplex is from eastern Russia, China and Japan. 

Another variety, C. racemosa, is from our area, Eastern North America. For reasons unknown, taxonomists have renamed it, moving it into the Actaea family. Ir is now A. racemosa, joining the ranks of the Baneberries. 

All this renaming is confusing enough (don't get me started on the Asters, some of which are now Symphyotrichums). But common names are worse, with the labels Black Snakeroot, Bugbane and Black Cohosh applied interchangeably and hap-hazardly to the Cimicifugas. I usually use both common and Latin names - the former create pleasing associations, but the latter are more precise, even though subject to change.

Which brings me to another late-bloomer that's been putting on quite the show. Not Eupatorium rugosum, which is also called Snakeroot, and is a white-flowered member of a wonderful native North American family of plants. It’s a cultivar of E. rugosum that is the current star of the end-of-fall garden.  Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’ comes on later than the White Snakeroot – which put its best foot forward in September and is now no more than a memory represented by a clump of yellowing leaves. All through October, Chocolate’s rich brown foliage contrasted wonderfully with the fluffy white flower clusters. The leaves have faded to green over the past few days but the flowers are still bright - there’s something about the light at this time of year that seems to concentrate colour and bounce it back – be it the red of a lingering maple leaf, the yellow of a tamarack tree or these last brave flowers of autumn. 

Musical chairs

My White Snakeroot, planted in 2008, has been worrying me: last year it was dramatic, a brilliant white in the gloom of a shade bed. This September, not so good. Has the shade grown too dense? I fussed over that in early summer and did prune a few of the lower branches off an overhanging magnolia. 

This is the season for plants to play musical chairs, either because the plant itself has signalled its discontent, or because the gardener’s aesthetic priorities require its presence elsewhere. So I'm wondering whether the Snakeroot should take a hike to a spot with a bit more light. But I think I shall leave it in place one more year and hope that the pruning overhead will have done the job. 

Others however are on the move – the Fothergilla that I placed in front of the house a year ago found it too hot, despite extensive mulching and diligent watering. I dug it up last week and found its root ball hadn’t expanded at all into the surrounding bed, so it has clearly been unhappy. It has a new spot where it is mostly in shade. A miserable over-exposed Clethra is also headed for shade, as soon as it stops raining!

I am pondering the placement of a Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) that I selected for a red accent at one end of my front bed. This is an edge-of-forest tree, it likes some sun but also needs shade for part of the day – and in midsummer this spot is sunny and hot. Still, the small tree looks so absolutely right there that I’ll take a chance (it will get shade from about 4 p.m. onwards, and hey, that's only going to improve as the peripheral trees grow). If it doesn’t work, C. florida will be on the move next year…

Bulbs from here 

It’s bulb planting time and I always add some Indian Hyacinth (Camassia) for its elegant spikes of star-shaped flowers in white or blue. C. scilloides is the one that’s native to Eastern North America, C. leichtlinii comes from the West. Being taller and showier, it’s more readily available from commercial outlets. Loves shade and flourishes in challenging dry conditions – worth making space for.  

It’s hard to find native bulbs and it is to be hoped that suppliers will start to propagate more of our lovely spring bloomers, such as Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica and C. caroliniana), Yellow Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium pubescens), Harbinger-of-Spring (Erigenia bulbosa) and Trout Lily (Erithronium americanum). All of these grow in our local woodlands, but do not, do not dig them up. They are where they can most readily flourish and spread, and creating gaps in the forest floor by disturbing the soil encourages alien invasive species to come in.

Among desirable summer-blooming bulbs that can be found commercially if you look for them are Michigan Lily (Lillium michiganense) and Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum).

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