Last week, while dropping one of my kids off at high school on the first day of the new school year, I got to thinking about “late bloomers.” I was struck by the differences in size and appearance between some of the students, especially the boys. Another parent watching the scene commented: “It’s amazing how much they change in four years. By the time they graduate, the late bloomers have all caught up.”
Isn’t that the truth! And the same holds true in the garden. While the transition from August to September is typically a low spot for blooming perennials, there are several late ones that not only bridge the gap into fall but actually outshine their early blooming garden neighbors.
If your garden lacks color or interest this time of year, here are a few perennials you might want to consider planting to spruce things up.
First is a beautiful plant with a not-so beautiful common name. Tricyrtis hirta, often called toad lily, is native to Japan. It begins blooming anywhere from the end of August into the middle of October, depending on where you live. Mine start blooming in mid- to late September, when most perennials are preparing to go dormant. Its exceptionally exquisite creamy white flowers are randomly blotched in deep purple and speckled with black spots. Looking much like old-fashioned “spin art,” they almost appear exotic and demand your attention. The flowers are arranged down the length of the plant’s arching stems.
There are several hybrid forms, and all prefer to grow in full to partial shade in average to moist garden soil. During the growing season, the plant goes a bit unnoticed, especially while other plants are blooming. However, once Tricyrtis begins flowering, it is hard not to notice it, especially once the plant has matured into a larger clump.
I planted a form in my garden called ‘Samurai,’ with beautiful gold edged leaves. When not in bloom, the gold variegation makes the plant stand out against the mostly green plants in its wooded location.
Another late blooming standout for either shade or partial sun is called Kirengeshoma palmata, or wax bells. This plant is not only a first-rate foliage plant, which alone makes it high on my list, but it starts blooming long after almost every other woodland plant has finished flowering.
Kirengeshoma’s pendulous butter-yellow flowers are held on wiry stems well above its maple leaf shaped dark green leaves. A bit slow to establish, it will eventually form a nice big clump, making it visible even from a distance. Hardy from zones 5 through 9, it does best in humus-rich soil that stays evenly moist during the summer.
Last but not least on my list of late bloomers is a Phlox paniculata variety called ‘Jeana.’ Three to four feet in height, with medium pink flowers, Jeana is perfect for the middle or back of the border. I have it planted in a shrub border where it seems to thrive, adding late-season color to otherwise flowerless foliage. Having an unexpected spot of color pop up late in the season helps keep that part of the garden interesting.
Jeana’s flowers are small for a phlox, but what they lack in size they make up for in number. While many phlox varieties suffer from late season mildew, Jeana is unbothered by it even in my garden, where fog is a common occurrence.
If you add Jeana to your garden, choose a site that is either in full sun or partial shade with well-drained but fertile soil. While not considered a drought-tolerant plant, it shouldn’t have any trouble standing up to hot, dry summers as long as there is ample moisture during the spring growing season.