Every estate garden has a need for great space fillers—lawns, big beds of ground covers, masses of shrubs—but every garden needs little gems, too. Fall is the best time to slip in some of those magical little plants that add dimension to even the smallest of garden spaces. The seasonal catalogs are out now and it is time to sharpen your pencil, oops…keyboard, for the autumn plant order.
My taste in favorites has been highly influenced by a little book written a long time ago by the late garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence. She lived a few blocks away from me in Charlotte when I was a child. Her lovely, richly layered city garden was graciously shared with the neighborhood kids. Her book, The Little Bulbs: A Tale of Two Gardens, was in manuscript before I was born, first published in 1957 and reprinted in 1986. My delight in reading her works and enjoying her garden as a child is one reason I garden and write about gardens today. The hot new plant varieties will not be in there, but the wisdom and well-structured prose are eternal and best served with a cup of hot tea.
BLUE MOON IN THE GARDEN
The hardest color to find in flowers is blue. A few rhododendrons may be on the blue side of purple, but those don’t favor our limestone soils. For us, blue must come in tiny doses of crocus, camassia, chinodoxa, hyacinth, star flower and squills. This is a great time of year to plant them, so if you have a yearning for a cool color in your garden, here are some recommendations:
Low-growing grape hyacinths will naturalize well in the garden border. The best species for regular soil here is Muscari armeniacum and its double-flowered variety, ‘Blue Spike.’ They last well and will multiply over time for a good early-spring show. The cultivars of Muscari aucheriare are a bit more fussy, preferring a site in the rockery with excellent drainage. The variety ‘Blue Magic’ has been around a while, with a really clear blue flower cluster, and ‘Ocean Magic’ is a new selection with striking azure to marine blue flowers shading into white tips of unopened buds in hues evocative of a cresting wave. In addition to the magical shades of the inflorescences, the young foliage is shorter than the floral spikes and allows the blooms to be enjoyed more fully than older varieties. Great in nooks and crannies of the rock garden or in patio pots, this hybrid needs sharply drained soil and will mire down if planted in heavy or poorly drained locations. If you have a well-drained location, a special treat is M. azurium. It has a true azure-blue flower spike, with short, broad foliage. According to Missouri Botanical Garden bulb specialist Jason Delaney, it is extremely fragrant.
FALL BLOOMING BEAUTIES
The ‘autumn crocus’ is popular for ice blue, purple, lavender, rose and white flowers. The name makes it sound like one plant, but there are dozens and dozens of species and cultivars in several genera over two families that share this common name. The true crocus, aptly named Crocus, is found in the Iris family. The most famous species, Crocus sativus, the spring-blooming saffron crocus, has rich lilac lavender flowers and is found commonly from China to Asia Minor. It is cultivated for the bright orange stigmas that are used in cooking for tasty, aromatic dishes like paella and Persian sweet rice.
There are many true Crocus species that bloom in the fall. Crocus speciosus has intense blue-violet flowers that look just like her spring flowering sisters and comes with a white selection called C. s. ‘Albus’ and a darker blue-purple called ‘Oxonian.’ Tiny corms are best planted in easy drifts of dozens. C. cartwrightianus ‘Albus’ is a white selection of a Mediterranean species that is normally found in shades of lavender. C. cartwrightianus is often called ‘wild saffron’ and may be found native in Crete, Greece and Turkey. C. ochroleucus offers slender, creamy white flowers with yellow shades deep in the throat. Crocus medius is a purple version, with light lavender petals around a deeper purple center. The reverse scheme, a pale lilac with a white eye and darker purple veins, may be found in C. kotschyanus. Crocus pulchellus ‘Zephyr’ sends up slender pear gray buds that open into large white blooms with bluish veins and blush around a warm orange heart. And for a lovely bi-color, try C. laevigatus ‘Fontenayi,’ with buds emerging creamy with purple striations and veins, and then opening to a lavender washed white with yellow center.
Another ‘autumn crocus’ is not a true Crocus, but a handsome and elegant cousin in the genus Colchicum in the lily family. The foliage appears in the spring then dies back in the summer, much like the surprise lilies described below. The flowers sneak out in the fall and appear magically like Easter eggs tucked under larger plants and in the nooks and crannies of the rock garden. ‘Violet Queen’ is one of the first to bloom, with rich amethyst purple blossoms reaching almost 7 inches in height. Our most common garden forms are the icy-lavender ‘Lilac Wonder,’ the rosy-lavender C. cilicicum species and the larger, fully double lilac pink ‘Waterlily’ with blooms that are taken for true waterlilies when floated in a bowl of water.
Just about as rare as a blue moon in the garden is a naked lady. Common names—you gotta love ‘em. Also known as magic lily or surprise lily, these wonderful Lycoris bulbs produce leaves in the spring that disappear as summer dries out. In the early autumn, with no fanfare or foliage, the stately scapes spring forth from the dry leaf duff and explode into radiant circles of bloom on elegant stems 1 to 2 feet high. The most common species has buff pink blooms and dances in the wind. Add a glass of wine and you, too, might have come up with the name.
Peter and I saw a magnificent Lycoris collection in full bloom last year in the botanical garden of Hangzhou, China. A slightly milder climate than ours, they can grow all of the 20 or so species of Lycoris, 15 of which are native to China. For our gardens, Delaney recommends Lycoris radiate var. pumila, with red flowers; L. chinensis, with golden orange flowers; L. springeri, with pale blue petal tips; and L. longituba, which shades from pure white to soft peachand every creamy shade in between. Another shade-on-shade beauty is L. incarnata, with wine purple stems shading into white petals.
So take a break from our summer heat and sift through the catalogues to daydream about your cool, blue garden. Look for ‘Rhapsody in Blue,‘ ‘Bluebird’ asters, ‘Midnight’ baptisia, ‘Blue Danube,’ ‘Blue Heaven’ and ‘Blue Candle’ camas- sias or the oriental hyacinth that reminds me of my dear husband…sweet ‘Blue Eyes.’ Patricia Raven, Ph.D., has a doctorate in ornamental horticulture and Julie Hess is senior horticulturist at the Missouri Botanical Garden.