Autumn Wildflowers Shove Gardens From Limelight


October 06, 1991|By Dolly Merrit

Fall is a season often taken for granted. In the cycle of seasons, autumn is typecast as a period of dying and a depressing prelude to winter. In Howard County, the beautiful colors, the smells, the comfortable, clear days, belie the stereotype. Every sense tells us that the fall is definitely not an unfortunate demise to better times.

Allen Lacy, garden columnist for the New York Times, speculates in his new book, "The Garden in Autumn," that fall got its bad reputation in Europe, especially England, where, because of its latitude, fall is wet, dank and cold. Familiar English poets haven't helped. Tennyson compared fall to a "sick man's room when he taketh repose an ourbefore death." Shelley titled one of his poems on autumn, "A Dirge."

Most of the garden knowledge and garden designs traditionally implemented here originated in Europe. Even today, English books on gardening in an English climate flood the U.S. market. We here in Howard County, who have such promising autumns, need to look closer to home for fall garden inspiration and information.

FOR THE RECORD - On Page 22 the author of the Diversions story was misidentified. It was written by contributing writer Mary Gold.

Henry David Thoreau was thrilled with autumn. He wrote "Asters and goldenrod reign in the fields and the life everlasting withers not." Indeed, Mother Nature, with her brilliant showing of maple and sumac foliage, swathes of yellow and purple wildflowers, shiny berries and rustling grasses, easily takes the limelight from my garden. But like fall itself, many of us overlook the obvious.

It must be human nature to ignore what is most common around us, no matter how beautiful, in search of the moreexotic. We gardeners have been doing it for years. Take the goldenrods and asters that surround us now. There are well over 100 varietiesof each in the United States. Melvin and Russel Brown, in their comprehensive "Herbaceous Plants of Maryland," list more than 30 varieties, with a dozen asters and half that many goldenrods considered common in Howard County. However, not only are most of these species not traditional American garden plants, some are considered weeds.

Ironically, the gardens of Europe are full of our asters and goldenrods. Of course, they are "exotic" there, and have long been prized garden specimens. Asters, with their dense canopies of small daisy-like flowers in all shades of pink, purple and blue, have been bred and cross-bred with wonderful results. Our tall native New England aster has classy relatives with names like "Harrington's Pink" and "Alma Potschke."

The shorter, more compact native New York aster, sometimes called Michaelmas Daisy, shows up in garden centers as "Boningale White" and "Crimson Brocade," among others. The cultivated aster frikartii, "Wonder of Staffa" is a standard, long blooming favorite with lavender-blue flowers. Many of the best modern aster varieties have German names, where they were developed.

Goldenrods (Latin name solidago) are even more ignored than asters. Contrary to common belief, they don't cause hay fever. It is the simultaneous blooming of ragweed's wind-borne pollen that is the culprit.

Goldenrod are also admired andbred in Europe. The plants' handsome clumps of arching yellow plumesare the poetry in varieties like "Cloth of Gold" and Golden Baby." It was the French in 1910 who achieved the ultimate in American fall flowers -- a unique cross of an anster and a goldenrod, called solidaster. The result of this mix is a plant with the basic form and bloom time of a goldenrod. The flowers that line the arching branches, however, resemble tiny rayed asters. Colors range from white to soft yellow.

Another native fall wildflower with newly found adaptability to home gardens is joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum). The uninspiring name reputedly comes from a colonial doctor who used the plant in his arsenal of herbal remedies. Down South, joe-pye weed is called "Queen of the Meadow," a far more descriptive label for a stately specimen that may reach 10 feel tall. Topped with a pyramid of rose-purple flowers, Eupatorium purpureum is a dramatic backdrop anywhere.

Fall can teach us to appreciate the non-floral aspect of the landscape. We see trees as more than green and shade. Many grasses, their wavingheads changing from rose to buff to brown; silvery artemesias; massive vines like Virginia creeper; and berried plants like contoneaster and viburnum give the landscape exceptional variety. Many provide pleasure well into winter.

Our county has a wonderful climate that makes including at least a few plants with fall interest rewarding. Fall gardening seems to be a part of an overall movement toward using more perennial plants, ornamental grasses and native plants in home landscapes. There are interestingly colored and shaped twigs and leaves,subtle fragrances and wildlife attractants to consider.

The gardener's palette has never been richer. Fall isn't just for chrysanthemums and bulb planting anymore.

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