Who said only trees and shrubs get to turn color in the fall?
Some perennials get into the act, too, with colorful fall foliage. These plants really earn their keep in the garden—they also have blooms earlier in the year!
The undisputed queen of perennials that turn color in fall is Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrictii). Its pale, steely blue flowers in spring are lovely, but the reason this plant has become a darling of landscape designers is because its feathery, soft foliage turns as gold as any ginkgo tree in autumn. The color can last for a solid month.
The closely related Amsonia tabernaemontana colors up, too, though not as consistently or for as long. Its acid-washed denim blue flowers are more substantial, however. Both plants are easy to grow, drought tolerant, and have no notable enemies.
Leadwort (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) blooms for nearly four months in summer and fall, in an on-again, off-again flurry of electric blue flowers. In fall it turns this rosy color before nodding off into a deep dormancy, not to be roused until mid-spring. The oft-repeated suggestion to plant it with spring-flowering bulbs is a good one. Not only can the bulbs do their thing unimpeded, but they also serve to mark the spot of the slumbering leadwort.
How many people think of daylilies for fall foliage color? Am I the only one? These ‘Happy Return’ clumps provide some of the earliest greenery in spring, sunny yellow flowers over a long season, and glowing foliage in fall. Daylilies can look a little messy after blooming, but these have been lovingly groomed, their spent seed stalks removed so that the foliage can shine.
Penstemon digitalis can be surprisingly colorful in fall. Some, like ‘Dark Towers,’ have plum-purple foliage that deepens in cool weather, but others—like this one—turn rosy red or even multicolored shades. Great drought tolerant plant, tough as an old boot. It reseeds a little, but not obnoxiously.
Balloonflower (Platycodon grandiflorus) makes a curtain call in October with foliage that turns ripe-banana yellow. Native to China, Korea, and Japan, balloonflower in those countries is steeped in folklore, symbolism, cuisine, and medicine, but here it is just pretty and fun (the buds can be popped like bubble wrap). This looks like the dwarf variety, ‘Sentimental Blue.’
Peony foliage often looks a hot mess by fall (botrytis renders plants ugly in wet summer areas), but if it can make it through the season unscathed, it may turn a buttery yellow. Peonies sited in more sun take on red and purple tones.
But perhaps my favorite perennial of all for colorful fall foliage is Sedum kamtschaticum subsp. ellacombianum. (It doesn’t appear to have an agreed-upon common name, but the USDA calls it “orange stonecrop.”) In fall its bright green leaves turn gummi-bear shades of cherry, orange, lemon, and lime. A sugar-dusting of frost completes the picture.
What’s your favorite perennial for fall foliage fireworks?