Warm autumn flowers

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Bauhinia galpinii

If any season can lay claim to a particular colour scheme in the garden, surely warm sunset hues belong to autumn. The spectacle of autumn leaves in tints of gold, tangerine, mahogany, rust, scarlet and yellow seems synonymous with the season, reflecting the mellowness of the days and the completion of the growth cycle of the garden. It is too early yet for autumn leaves, but flowers out now can provide us with a similar colour story. Our autumn days are still long and warm, allowing many flowers to bloom on from summer well into autumn, such as Dahlia, Canna, Pentas, Fuchsia triphylla cultivars and cane Begonia - these all have hot-coloured varieties. The twiners Gloriosa superba and Manettia luteorubra, which have reddish-orange and yellow blooms with an almost neon quality, are still flowering madly.

There are also numerous flowering plants that bloom only in autumn, bringing fresh life and a sense of seasonal change. Hot flower colours which may seem gaudy and exhausting to the eye in summer, take on a different mantle, as the angle and quality of the sunlight changes, backlighting flowers with a soft inner glow.

Lycoris aurea beneath Brugmansia aurea, in the garden of Anne Prescott, Sydney

A lovely garden that I visited this week had an impressive clump of that flamboyant early autumn bulb Lycoris aurea (ht 40 - 60 cm) in full flight beneath a large golden Brugmansia tree. Known as the yellow spider lily, its narrow ruffled petals and long whiskery stamens appear suddenly on leafless stems in March, flowering best after a hot, dry summer: which of course we have just had! They suit all but tropical or very cold districts. There is also a red variety (Lycoris radiata) and I was delighted to find a couple in flower in my own garden when I prowled around it yesterday. I love the element of surprise that these plants give in a garden - they can never be relied on to flower, but when they do, it is a thrill!

Hibiscus coccineus

Another plant that suddenly comes into bloom for just a short time around March is the unusual herbaceous Hibiscus coccineus (ht 1-2 m). A few large sculptured buds open into enormous scarlet silky blooms similar to those on the shrubby Hawaiian Hibiscus, but they last only a day or so. The plant dies down completely in winter. I enjoy its transient display as one of the dramas of early autumn.

Salvia confertiflora in the garden of Jill Budden, Springwood NSW

Other hot-coloured flowers can be found on some of the shrubby autumn-blooming salvias, and unlike my Hibiscus, these last for months! Forsythia sage (Salvia madrensis, ht 1.5 - 2m) bursts into bloom in March with bold spires of citrus yellow flowers amidst large heart-shaped leaves, until June. A fairly new specimen for me - Salvia confertifolia (ht 1.5 - 2m) - is another autumn-flowering sage, with long spikes of dainty orange-red flowers held in velvety red-brown calyces. It is not a very showy specimen but it has a quiet charm. These salvias consort well with ornamental grasses flowering at the same time, or can be grown amongst other warm-climate shrubs, climbers and perennials that flower in sunny places in hot colours from summer into autumn. Many of the blue and purple flowered shrubby Salvia are at their peak in autumn and can provide a superb contrast to any warm-coloured blooms. In smaller spaces, some of the lower-growing, summer-flowering shrubby salvias can be grown, as they too flower on throughout autumn. Salvia greggii (ht 1m) and Salvia microphylla (ht 1m) have named cultivars in bright red, tangerine, apricot and yellow.

Last year I planted a Bauhinia galpinii (pictured at the start of the blog) and it began to bloom in late summer but is more floriferous at the moment. It has large, brick-red flowers that look like a flock of some exotic creature has landed on the shrub. I am enjoying its contrast with Salvia 'Mystic Spires' growing nearby. Euryops chrysanthemoides begins its main blooming period now (though it always seems to have some of its bright yellow daisy flowers sprinkled across it) and is giving lots of robust colour nearby.

Odontonema strictum with a dark-leaved Amaranthus caudatus in the background

There is also bright autumnal colour to be found in shady areas at this time of year. Shrubby red justicia (Odontonema tubaeforme, ht 2m) is a subtropical, shade-loving plant with plumes of blood red, glossy flowers throughout autumn. Its large luxuriant leaves provide a useful background screen. It will soon be joined by the tousled red blooms of Bilbergia pyramidalis beneath it.

There is clearly no shortage of flowers to blaze in our Sydney autumn gardens!