Perennials bring rich color, texture to gardens

Posted Sept. 17, 2010, at 5:50 p.m.

One of the best garden shows in town over the past several weeks, at least in the Ellsworth area, has been the native plant collection at the Hancock County Cooperative Extension office on Boggy Brook Road.

Recently, I wrote about the woody plant species growing there, but over the past month I have been drawn to the native perennials in this garden, watching some species come into flower, reach their peaks and gradually fade as days shorten and night temperatures drop, only to be replaced on stage by the late-flowering golden-rods. This experience has rekindled a long-neglected interest in native herbaceous perennials, plants so wild and woolly that many would call them weedy. I call them exuberant!

My favorite spot in this garden has been a grouping of native perennials that anchors the entrance walkway, a wide swath of elm-leaved goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia) planted in front of sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) and Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum). These three species, grouped together, dominate the autumn landscape with their bold textures and rich colors.

Helenium autumnale, sneezeweed

Helenium autumnale, as its name suggests, is a fall-blooming perennial that can reach 6 feet in height, or more, when grown in rich, moist soils. The branched stems bear the huge mass of two-inch flowers in August and September. The common name, sneezeweed, has nothing to do with the plant’s pollen, but can be traced to the use of the dried and powdered leaves as a snuff cure the common cold.

Sneezeweed is another example of a native North American plant that was not popular in gardens until European breeders worked with them. Now there are several varieties in flower colors — gold, orange, rust and red. I recently visited a friend’s garden where a mix of gold and red heleniums created a bright and cheerful garden scene.

Sneezeweed should be grown in full sun, setting the plants two feet apart in soil enriched with compost. The exuberance of the tall plants in the Extension garden can be attributed to annual mulching with composted goat manure.

Sneezeweed can get wild and woolly. You may want to stake the taller varieties or, to keep the taller types blooming on shorter, bushier stems, cut them back hard around July 4. Deadhead the plants after the flowers fade.

Eupatorium purpureum, Joe-Pye weed

Joe-Pye weed is a mammoth, clump-forming perennial, growing to 9 feet high in rich, moist soils. I believe that the plants at the Extension garden are the cultivar ‘Atropurpureum,’ based on their violet-purple flowers and dark burgundy stems. Everything about this plant is bold, including the lance-shaped, toothed leaves that form a dark green foil for early blooming perennials.

Flowering from midsummer through early autumn — beginning to fade by early September in the Ellsworth area — Joe-Pye weed is one of the best butterfly- and bee-attracting plants.

Solidago ulmifolia, elm-leaved goldenrod

Goldenrods can be found everywhere through the summer and into fall, but my favorites are the late-blooming species, the gray-stemmed (S. nemoralis) and blue-stemmed goldenrods (S. caesia), and elm-leaved goldenrod. This later species is the tallest, growing to 3 feet tall, with slender stems that branch only sparsely except at the top, where the flowers grow.

As Joe-Pye weed starts to fade, the elm-leaved goldenrod is just beginning to flower. The stems bend over under the weight of developing heads of golden flowers that last up to a month.

Recommended for light shade or partial sun, the elm-leaved goldenrods at the Extension garden are thriving in their full-sun exposure and rich, compost-amended soil.

These three native perennials grow large and make a bold statement in the garden throughout the summer, before they break into bloom. But they come into their own when flowering. They belong to autumn, to chilly nights and cloudless days, to ripening pumpkins, to the last bees and butterflies of the garden year.

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