Sunday, October 6, 2013

Fall Colors in the Native Garden

Fall leaf colors are often talked about, but fall flower colors are lighting up the landscape right now. If I were go to a field, a wild field, the colors there would a mixture of yellow, purple and white. If I could find a field that hasn’t been mowed down by the power company, that is!

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

Oh, anyway, the point is that nature’s wild combinations can be beautifully replicated in your own garden and can be a source of delight to the butterflies, moths, beetles, flies and bees that are looking for pollen and nectar this time of year. Here are some ideas.

Bright yellow flowers of late summer/early autumn come in all shapes and sizes. Most noticeable are the goldenrods (Solidago spp.) which many people still fear as a source of allergies. This is not true as the pollen of goldenrod is too heavy to be wind-borne. Other people are nervous that goldenrod is too aggressive for the garden. There are actually several species of goldenrod that are known as “clumpers”and which can be used in the garden.

Grey goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis) is a nice clumper

Other yellow flowers include some of the members of the sunflower family (Helianthus spp.). Swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) is probably the star of the season with its statuesque form and large bright flowers. I am also very fond of the Appalachian sunflower (H. atrorubens). Flowers known as “golden asters” are also blooming: silkgrass (Pityopsis graminifolia), Maryland aster (Chrysopsis mariana) and yellow camphorweed (Heterotheca subaxillaris).

Swamp sunflower (H. angustifolius) has narrow leaves and showy flowers

Liatris pilosa with Solidago and Lobelia

Purple flowers are an excellent foil for the yellow flowers. There are several late season blazing stars (Liatris spp.) blooming now.

Monarch butterflies are very fond of blazing stars. Around here, it is primarily Liatris pilosa. I am trying to cultivate Liatris aspera in my garden as well; it blooms a little earlier.


Symphyotrichum patens
 Where the blazing stars leave off, the asters take over. A variety of pale to deep blue asters are native to Georgia and are excellent drought tolerant perennials. First to bloom is the one oddly enough known as "late purple aster" (Symphyotrichum patens). It is very similar in form to Georgia aster, with tall rough stems, clasping leaves and sparsely arranged flowers.

I can only tell them apart when they bloom.

Symphyotrichum georgianum
Georgia aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum) has larger and more deeply colored purple flowers. The flowers can be up to 2 inches wide. It lacks the bright yellow center of S. patens, instead having a cream colored center that darkens to purple once the center disk flowers are open. It is a sprawling plant and looks best in its natural habitat where it is propped up by native grasses and other plants.

Two additional native blue asters have been cultivated extensively: New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium). New England aster is native to northern areas of Georgia while aromatic aster is native to adjacent states to our north and west.

If you are looking for garden worthy asters, you might enjoy reading this report by the Mt. Cuba Center on their trials. Although their growing conditions are different, you might find some of the observations useful.

Symphyotrichum dumosum

White flowers may not get all the glory, but they do a lot of work in the late season garden. To those of us trying to identify white asters as to specific species, there is a dizzying array of them. Seriously, there are a lot of them. The rest of you can just say “Oh look, small white asters!”

I love to watch the assortment of skippers, hover flies and tiny bees that visit these flowers.

Ageratina altissima

Blooming right in there with them are the late thoroughworts (Eupatorium spp.) and white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima).

So if you're looking for a colorful and natural fall garden that supports a healthy population of native insects, look to the yellows, blues and whites for inspiration.


  1. Give it a couple more years and the meadows being established as part of the Atlanta Beltline Arboretum will be an awesome way to see our natives shine. I was on the Eastside Trail yesterday and saw many fall favorites, but as this is the first year, it is still sparse and we are fighting the weeds.

    1. I'm so glad to hear about this development along the Beltline, Kay. My brother in the Nashville area frequently showers me with info regarding a very progressive TN city's use of native plants, with the encouragment of citizens to do the same in their home landscapes.

  2. I love them all...hard to pick a favorite!