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Last But Not Least
As the season turns, turn to stalwart perennials
Boltonia asteroides look like asters on steroids, with masses of starry white flowers atop 6-foot-high clumps of foliage.
Autumn always seems to sneak up on both garden and gardener. Long before the air holds a real chill or the roses flag, the way the sunlight falls across the garden hints at the shorter days to come. Seemingly from one day to the next its rich golden rays, as warm as your favorite sweater, fade to a thinner, more transparent light. It takes no more than the paling of that full-blown sunshine to remind us that only a few short weeks of gardening are left to us before Earth's tilt slides us into winter.

We've started down the slippery slope to the shortest day of the year, and an appropriately obsessive reaction is to get out there and plant.

You don't yet need to suffer nursery withdrawal; plenty of perennials are still going strong. Plants just coming into bloom so late in the season are a perfect antidote to gardens looking a bit tired at the end of a long season. They may even revive the interest of equally worn out gardeners. If nothing else, they fill in some of those awkward gaps left by plants that suffered early decline, or cover up spots we forgot to water. Considering the pleasant autumns we've had the past few years, it is possible to keep the garden blooming until nearly Thanksgiving.
Illustration Now In Bloom
The foliage of yellow wax-bells (Kirengeshoma palmata) is so elegant and distinguished you might grow the plant for its leaves and habit alone, but at this time of year there's the added bonus of puffy pale buds opening to soft yellow flowers. Maple-like leaves on stems so deeply purple as to appear nearly black grow 3 feet high and grace the garden all summer. From Japan, they need shade, moist soil and protection from slugs, and are good companions to ferns, hydrangeas and heuchera.
White flowers look especially radiant against darkening skies and fiery foliage. Boltonia asteroides are great explosions of white bloom, growing in fat, flower-studded clumps to 6 feet high. You'd think they're asters, except they're too extravagantly tall. There are plenty of white asters, too; I'm especially fond of wood asters (A. divaricatus), which grow low along the ground on wiry branches coated in tiny white star-like flowers. While the small flowers of A. lateriflorus 'Prince' are tinted a pale pinkish, they appear nearly white against the rich, purple-black foliage; it grows sturdy and dense up to 2 feet high. Pure white Allium tuberosum, as graceful as its purple relatives, is one of the latest-flowering ornamental onions. And even though the foliage is coarse, and they spread far too freely, nothing looks more elegant in a vase than simple, single white Japanese anemones.

The taller sedums are so late and long-flowering as to define autumn bloom. S. spectabile 'Iceberg' is one of the palest, while S. 'Bertram Anderson' has vivid purplish-pink leaves and masses of rosy red flowers. For a double hit of pale, seek out S. erythrostictum 'Frosty Morn,' with fleshy leaves margined in white and shell-pink flowers. One of my favorites, in pots and in the ground, is S. telephium 'Matrona,' a stately sedum with smoky pink flowers fading to rust, shown off against large leaves tinted in lavender with purple veining. No sedum looks better with wheat-colored or darkly purple ornamental grasses than 'Matrona.'

Be sure to mix some intensely colored perennials in with all these whites and dusky colors, like orange Chinese lanterns (Physalis alkekengi) with their curious papery puffs, the long-lasting orange-scarlet tubular flowers of gray-leafed Zauschneria californica, and the cobalt-blue bloom of dwarf plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides), plus plenty of autumn mainstays like hardy fuchsias and salvias.

The best thing about late-flowering perennials is that they get you outside to enjoy the garden when it is most enlivened by creatures. Bees work furiously on any remaining flowers, squirrels forage, and birds delight in a buffet of berries as rose hips ripen and boughs droop with fruit. Mornings are misty, twilight sets in dramatically earlier each evening. All of a sudden we find ourselves turning on a lamp when we get home from work, rather than heading right outdoors to set a sprinkler or cut a rose. It's getting time to finish up the planting, take a rest before autumn clean-up, and realize the near-unbelievable fact it won't be long before nursery catalogs arrive in the mailbox and it will be time to begin the task of planning next year's garden.

Clarification: As many of you have let me know, rhubarb leaves are poisonous. They contain oxalate, which, when ingested in large quantities, has proven poisonous. So they shouldn't be used as plate liners. The caterer featured in this column Sept. 7 uses horseradish leaves, not rhubarb, to line plates.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is

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