Area landscapes were starting to recover from Hurricane Irma as a nor’easter rolled in last week, adding insult to injury. Damage from the storms varied depending on the plant, the location and the level of exposure to winds and flooding. Despite the weather, there are some plants that are adding some much needed fall color.
As the weather cools, especially the nights, flower colors will become more intense. There are many woody ornamentals, perennials and annuals that are contributing to our colorful landscapes.
Some of the more interesting woody plants with color are beautyberry, butterfly vine and senna. Beautyberry (Caliparpa americana) is a native plant that is loaded with striking purple or white berries in tight clusters along plant stems. Beautyberry grows well in fertile soil in full sun to partial shade, and serves as food for birds. It will reach eight feet in height but can be kept in bounds by pruning in late winter. Cuttings are beautiful in floral arrangements, especially if mixed with yellow or orange flowers. To make the berries stand out in arrangements, pinch off the leaves.
One vine that displays an assortment of colors is the yellow butterfly vine, Mascagnia macroptera. This vigorous evergreen vine will reach 10 to 12 feet tall and is easily trained to a trellis or can be grown as a mounding shrub or groundcover. Clusters of bright yellow orchid-like flowers measure 1 inch across and occur spring through fall. The plant is named for the green papery seed pods that resemble the shape of a butterfly. As they mature, these pods change from green to tan to brown.
Sennas are in bloom, and depending on the species, produce clusters of yellow flowers (Senna bicapsularis, Christmas senna) or yellow candlestick blooms (Senna alata). You may know these plants under the name of cassia but the genus name has been changed from Cassia to Senna. They are fast-growing trees that attract sulfur butterflies and are a food source for sulfur caterpillars. The caterpillars are difficult to spot because they change colors based on their food source. If they are feeding on leaves caterpillars are green and when feeding on flowers they are yellow; this great camouflage helps protect them from predators.
Many perennials are also in bloom. Some have been in bloom all summer whereas others are triggered to bloom by the shorter days. A good example of a fall bloomer is Mexican sage (Salvia leucanthoe).
Mexican sage is a robust grower, spreading more in width each year and reaching five feet in height. Plants may die back with a winter freeze but reliably come back each spring. They may be dull background plants during the summer, but they are standouts now with their spikes of fuzzy purple flowers.
Firespike, Odontonema strictum, is another great fall bloomer that reaches 4 to 5 feet in height with a spreading growth habit. The terminal spikes of red, pink or purple tubular flowers are a magnet for both butterflies and hummingbirds. Plants may suffer some damage due to cold weather, but new growth emerges once warm weather returns in the spring.
Bird of paradise, Strelitzia reginae, is one plant that came through the storms with no apparent damage. The thick leathery leaves and exotic blooms held up well even at the beaches. Great at creating a tropical effect, these three to five foot tall plants are perfect additions around pools because they don’t shed their leaves. Showy blue and orange flowers atop a green modified leaf resemble a bird’s beak. For best flower production, place in full sun or partial shade in soil that is organic and well-drained. For more information on growing bird of paradise, go to edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mg106.
Pentas, Pentas lanceolata, are always a great addition for perennial beds, and will flower from spring until the first frost. Make sure to select those that include butterflies on the plant labels as some of the newer varieties don’t seem to do the job. Along with butterflies, expect visits from hummingbirds, too.
For instant color, consider adding flowering annuals to spruce up the landscape. Local garden centers are stocking many of the cool season annuals and perennials. Garden mums, referred to as hardy chrysanthemums, are plentiful and come in an assortment of colors. These can be planted in the landscape after flowering, and will bloom naturally in the spring and fall as long as the short day cycle is not interrupted by outside lights. Marigolds are often referred to as the “poor man’s chrysanthemum.” Wonderful fall colors of yellow and orange are at a much better price, and will outlast the chrysanthemum blooms. Other cool season flowers to plant soon are dianthus, geranium, lobelia, pansy, petunia, snapdragon, and viola. Some of these are heat-sensitive and may not be on the market until the end of October. For color and texture mix in some edibles like parsley, nasturtium, chives, thyme, rosemary, kale, Swiss chard (rainbow or bright lights), beets, red mustard, plus red and green leaf lettuces.
Fall is the best season to garden and enjoy wildlife so take advantage of the great weather during October.
Terry Brite DelValle is a horticulture extension agent with the Duval County Extension Service and the University of Florida/IFAS.