October 19, 2013

The Inconvenience with Late Color

One of the latest of the Monkshood's, Aconitum cammarum 'Bicolor' AGM is more showy in the border due to
its white and violet blossoms, a nice option from the typical purple Monkshood often seen in earlier autumn.


Old-time gardeners know about the virtues of Monkshood. Tall, delphinium blue if not delphinium-like plants tower in the late autumn perennial border. Most bloom in shades on blueish violet, with a few all white clones, but one select form offers both Aconitum cammarum 'Bicolor' , make my top ten list, then again, it is a selection which has been honored with the The Royal Horticultural Society's (RHS) Award of Merit - which is another of my secret hints. These award winners are always garden worthy.

Also a highly poisonous plant, these relatives of the Ranunculus have far more benefits to gardeners than their common name suggests ( names like Devil's Helmut, Wolfsbane or Woman's Bane(what?!). Yes, this is the perfect Halloween plant in many ways. Be prepared for its height, as this is a plant which can reach 5 feet tall if planted in partial sun. It's hardy and best grown from Zone 3 to Zone 7. It sulks a bit when first planted, and will take 3 - 5 years for a plant to establish itself and reach its ultimate height. For this reason, and because Aconites hate any root disturbance, it is best to prepare deep holes with compost and a slow release fertilizer, as once planted, plants like to remain undisturbed.

With over 250 species, Aconitum has far more rarer and unusual species than those commonly seen in gardens, as there are many superb named forms, as well as a few dwarf and even true alpine forms. Highly toxic, the poison is found in even portion of the plant. It can be deadly if eaten, and some people find the sap irritating on their skin. Still, if you handle with care ( we plant ours on the other side of the fence so our dogs can get it), nature seems to know that this plant is off limits. Our free range poultry peck around the shoots, and wild animals never touch it.

Fall blooming allium
There are Allium species for most every season around here, and October belongs to Allium thunbergii 'Ozawa', with
its bright violet umbels that can last almost an entire month when in bloom.

 Allium thunbergii - The Japanese Onion

We often associate Allium with late spring and early summer, especially now, as we are planting our spring bulbs and browsing through the Dutch bulb catalogs with tulips and narcissus, but don't forget that there are fall blooming bulbs too, (there are both narcissus and crocus species that bloom in the fall)  yet the late alliums may be the most growable of the fall blooming bulbs, and no allium performs like Allium thunbergii - the rhizomatous Japanese native that many gardeners overlook simply because when they finally see one in full bloom ( in October), few are available in garden centers, and it is too late to order from most on-line suppliers.

My best advice? Make a note now, and order a few in the spring. I only have one clump blooming at the moment, but I plan on both dividing the tuft of foliage in spring ( simply by separating the rhizomes and resetting them into the garden), and on ordering a dozen plants to add to it. Plants are available in the spring from many on-line sources ( I suggest Far Reaches Farm).

Allium thunbergii drive bees crazy on warm, autumnal days, but the color may get you swooning too. So easy
and it slowly divides to form a clump which can be divided in spring.

Toad Lilies provide some of the latest flowers in the garden, they bloom with the exuberance of a spring woodland. 

The Toadlilies 

Often making those Rock Star Perennial lists,  Tricytis, or the 'Toad Lily', is a late blooming perennial, which indeed in in the lily family, but one which is hardly lily-like at all. There are a handful of species, all found in Asia, with specific species hailing from the Himalaya to Korea and Japan. Most are available from mail order sources, and occasionally at good nurseries, but again, this is a plant that suffers from retail deficiency - few commercial garden centers carry these lesser-known perennials as prime space is dedicated to products which not only maximize sales like corn stalks, pumpkins and mums also ones with better profit margins. Quick, seasonal sales.

We can't blame large nurseries, as they need to sell plants, in order to survive. Most rarely dedicate space to late-blooming perennials simply due to sales, so in many ways, we are to blame. Best way to amend this? Buy these unusual plants when you see them.  Eventually, more and more nurseries will bring some in from wholesalers, that is - once wholesalers start growing them. Also, look for Tricyrtis in the spring, as some good nurseries will have pots that they have wintered over in a hoop house or cold frame.

Until frost, Tricyrtis hirta ( the wild forma) provides flowers and color until a hard frost ends the growing season.
 There is another reason why these fall blooming plants are challenging plants for most nurseries to stock, and that is that most bloom at an inconvenient time - when most nurseries have already repacked their hoop houses for the winter, switching over to pumpkins and Holiday, and when we gardeners are more in a 'raking leaves and cleaning out the perennial border' mode, than thinking about planting anything other than tulips.  It's hard to try and get excited about investing time and money in a plant that is about to get knocked down with frost in a week, and then have to wait an entire year for color again, but believe me, you will thank me in a year,  but it's a bit like planning Easter dinner a week before Christmas - we just don't feel like it.

This summer I decided to set out a number of Cyclamen hederifolium tubers, seedling bulbs, which should survive out
winter. Native to the woodlands of the Mediterranean ( the south of France, western Turkey and Greece), this species is most successfully naturalized in the Pacific Northwest, yet on the Atlantic seaboard, it can survive and bloom
in gardens from Atlanta to southern New England if situated in the ideal location ( leafy litter and dappled shade).

Pots of mail-order alpine plants, ready for setting out into alpine troughs and the alpine garden. Autumn
is a great time for planting many plants, including many trees and shrubs. Primula marginata ( yes, I finally
found a white one!)
Due to my schedule at work, I've been rather busy this past month ( well, more busy than I usually am!), so this is the first weekend where I can take a bit of time from household chores, to plant in the garden. Even though we have yet to recieve our first frost, there are many plants that need to be set out into the garden before the soil freezes including hundred of Dutch bulbs, boxwood shrubs which I purchased on sale, and a tray of alpine plants that I brought back from Wrightman Alpines. On Primula marginata has even sent up a spike, not unusual as many early alpine primula throw a few flowers in the autumn.


  1. Gorgeous pics as always!

  2. Matt:
    You must seek out and try Aconitum alboviolaceum, one of the few true climbers among the genus. Its flowers are decidedly mitre shaped and are a stunning two tone creamish white and violet as its name suggests. I have it scrambling up Thalictrum delavayi 'Splendide' - which stopped visitors in their tracks this summer!

  3. Hey Matt.....Cyclamen herifolium & coum both survive out in my gardens here with no problem at all. Even one I bought out in Portland, OR two Aprils ago made it through beautifully and flowered profusely! Now the coum is seeding around nicely. My Aconitum 'bicolor' is taking quite a long time to get its footing, but is now doing well and flowering.

  4. Oh I used to have that monkshood. I really must get more.


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