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  • October 2014
  • Andrew Jordan

Autumn Colour

The term ‘Autumn Colour’ conjures up images of intense firework displays of colour from a host of deciduous trees and shrubs, but there are also other plants that provide colour and interest in the garden during autumn months with their colourful flowers, fruit and bark. Read on for my top 10 plants providing interest during this season.

This article written by Andrew Jordan appears in Cotswold Preview publication, October 2014. The term ‘Autumn Colour’ conjures up images of intense firework displays of colour from a host of deciduous trees and shrubs, but there are also other plants that provide colour and interest in the garden during autumn months with their colourful flowers, fruit and bark.

Here are my top 10 plants for autumn interest.

1. Euonymus alatus

One of the finest and most reliable of all deciduous shrubs for autumn colour. This is a neat shrub with a clear sense of organisation in its dome of branches. These radiate up and out from the base and each is encrusted with an extraordinary armour of bark that becomes increasingly winged as the limbs age. The leaves turn a brilliant crimson-pink and reddish-purple fruits open to reveal orange-coated seeds.

For smaller gardens you could contain it in a large pot.

Japanese anemones
Japanese anemones

2. Anemone japonica(Japanese anemones)

These are tough plants with bold foliage and delicate five-petalled flowers on top of slender stems. The majority of autumn-flowering anemones belong to two groups: Anemone hupehensis and Anemone x hybrida.

They are tall, 1-1.5m, will thrive in light shade as well as full sun and prefer moist and well-drained soil. In sunny spots plant with spring flowering bulbs such as Alliums, which look spectacular against the anemone’s foliage.  Japanese anemones provide a glow of summer through the autumn months.

Helenium Riverton Beauty
Helenium Riverton Beauty

3. Helenium ‘Riverton Beauty’

This easy to grow perennial will brighten up any early autumn border. Bright yellow daisy-like florets with a dark maroon-brown centre creates a large flattened flower. Although one of the oldest Heleniums it is still just as popular today. Late daisies like sun, as well as reasonably fertile and moist soils. To restrict their size, cut back to about 30cm tall in May.

Grasses are the natural companions, but since daisies are by definition late, complementary earlier-flowering perennials are needed – Astrantia, Geranium and Phlox combine well.

4. Aster ‘Little Carlow’

The best of the true aster daisies with masses of small violet-blue florets with bright yellow centres appearing through September to early October. It likes well-drained soil in sun or partial shade. Unlike many asters this variety doesn’t succumb to powdery mildew.  

It looks good when repeated through a border and positioned so it catches the evening sun with backlit grasses like miscanthus.

5. Rudbeckia fulgida sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’

This award-winning black-eyed Susan has large, golden-yellow, daisy-like flowers up to 12cm across with cone-shaped, blackish-brown centres from mid-summer right through to the middle of autumn when the first severe frosts arrive.

The plant is short enough not to need staking and will tolerate light shade in well-drained soil. It looks good when planted in bold drifts with other late summer-flowering perennials and ornamental grasses.

6. Stipa gigantea

Grasses change as the season advances but it is particularly in autumn that some species come to prominence. As the angle of sunlight lowers, their colours turn to silver, bronze and gold, and they often retain their drying flowers as well. Stipa gigantea is the largest and most striking of all stipas.

Tall heads of light golden brown to buff-like oat heads are held above neat, grey-green mound of evergreen leaves and remains effective right through autumn and winter. It must have full sun and well-drained soil. They are attractive on their own or combined with other late flowering plants such as Aster, Helianthus and Helenium or the globe heads of Echinops ritro ‘Veitch’s Blue’.

7. Ginkgo biloba

This tree is best for late autumnal colour. It has distinctive fan-shaped bright green leaves which turn a rich lemon in autumn. It is tolerant of most soil conditions, and prefers a sunny position. It has a tall, slender shape that makes it suitable for smaller gardens, narrow beds and walkways.

Ginkgo biloba trees are attractive enough to function as specimen plants, particularly because of their golden fall foliage. They are disease-resistant and tolerate urban pollution.

8. Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia creeper)

This is a vigorous climber which makes an attractive foliage plant with its luxuriant 5-lobed green leaflets that turn fiery shades of red and orange in autumn. Insignificant flowers are followed by blue-black berries which provide a food source for birds in winter. It is tolerant of most soils and situations and is fast growing making it ideal to screen an unsightly shed or outbuilding. Plants are self-clinging but need some help to get started, so tie to netting or trellis at the base of a wall.

It does however require lots of space, regular pruning and will smother other plants it finds in its way. All of this makes it an unsuitable choice for small gardens.

9. Colchicum autumnale ‘Autumn’

This autumn-flowering bulb has gorgeous goblet-shaped white flowers from September to October, followed by large leaves. These autumn-flowering bulbs are perfect for naturalising in grass under a semi-mature specimen tree. Wear gloves when working with colchicum since all parts of the plant are poisonous and a potential skin irritant, and plant in naturalistic drifts 15cm deep in July or autumn.

They are best grown in moisture-retentive, fertile soil, in a sheltered spot that enjoys afternoon sun, this will encourage a good succession of wide-open flowers. Allow unsightly leaves to die down naturally. They look good when planted against the black-leafed, grass-like Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ and the dark foliage of heucheras.

Early Autumn Border
Early Autumn Border

10. Sorbus vilmorinii

A beautiful all round tree with delicate fern-like foliage that turns dark crimson in autumn. Creamy white flowers are followed by clusters of berries fading from red to white.  This tree will grow to 4 x 4m in 20 years and has an elegant spreading habit. It is tolerant of most conditions including exposed sites but prefers slightly acidic soil where possible. Good for smaller gardens and if you are interested in bringing wildlife to your garden.

Consider the position of the sun when planting plants for autumn interest, especially those with ornamental foliage/ stems. With the sun lower in the sky at this time of year position plants where they will be backlit, so that as the sun moves around during the day, their visual appearance changes dramatically.

For inspiration, there are many gardens and arboretums packed with interest at this time of year.

Westonbirt Arboretum near Tetbury – Home to some of the nation’s oldest, tallest and largest trees. The gardens never fail to amaze visitors with their intense colours in all seasons, but during autumn acer, beech and Japanese maple trees provide the most dramatic displays.

Stourhead near Warminster in Wiltshire – As one of the world’s finest classical 18th-century landscape gardens, Stourhead is arguably at its most beautiful in autumn when richly coloured foliage frames the ornamental lake at its centre.

Buscot park near Faringdon – incorporates a Grade II listed historic park with a beautiful water garden by Harold Peto set within a wooded glade.

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