Blazing Garden Plants For Autumn Glory

As the season grows cooler, the old flower heads of tall sedums darken. (Image by Jessie Keith)

In the fall, many plants begin to wither and fade away quietly from the garden.  Some pass so gently into dormancy that we often don’t notice their departures. Happily, there are other high-spirited exceptions that refuse to exit meekly. Instead, they fire up their flowers, fruits, and foliage to keep the garden showy late into the year. These individuals—perennials, shrubs, and trees–wait until the end of the growing season to put on flamboyant autumn displays, going into winter in a blaze of glory.

Colorful Garden Plants for Autumn


Fine-leaved Hubricht’s bluestar has beautiful fall color. (Image by Jessie Keith)

The bushy eastern bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana, USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9) and fine-leaved Hubricht’s bluestar (T. hubrichtii, Zones 5-9) are quiet individuals in the spring and summer garden. They produce spring flowers of the gentlest blue and feathery mounds of summer foliage in an unobtrusive Garden-of-Eden green. Then, one fine autumn day these retiring beauties undergo a stunning metamorphosis.  Suddenly, bluestar’s green foliage radiates a dazzling, show-stopping golden orange. There is a miniature, spreading, fine-leaved form, called ‘Georgia Pancake(Amsonia ciliata var. filifolia ‘Georgia Pancake’, Zones 4-9) that reaches only about 6 inches tall and spreads to 2 feet wide and is equally attractive in fall.

Deer resistant bluestars grow to a bushy 3 feet tall by 4 feet wide when grown in average soil and full to partial sun.  At planting time give them a boost by amending their soil with Black Gold Garden Soil, which has a little added fertilizer to get plants off to a great start.

Tall Sedum

Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ is a perennial fall favorite.

In spring, perennial Autumn Joy sedum (Sedum telephium ‘Autumn Joy’, zones 3-8) becomes a neat, round, 18-inch mound of succulent, pale green leaves.  In mid to late summer, stems of domed, pink flower heads cover the clump and are bee and butterfly magnets. As the season progresses, the color of the aging flowerheads deepen until in late fall when they radiate deep rose-red.  After frost, the flowers turn rich copper. Another exceptional tall sedum is the knock-your-socks-off ‘Mr. Goodbud‘ (Sedum telephium ‘Mr. Goodbud’, zones 4-9), an award-winner that is slightly shorter and has brilliant domed flower heads of purplish-pink.

Tall sedums prefer full sun. As long as their soil is well-drained and holds average moisture, they will grow well.

Little Bluestem

Little bluestem Blue Heaven™ turns brilliant shades in fall. (Image by Proven Winners)

Sun-loving little bluestem Blue Heaven™ (Schizachyrium scoparium Blue Heaven ‘MinnblueA’, zones 3-9) grows into an upright, 2-4-foot clump with soft gray blades that are streaked with sky blue and tipped with dusty purple. This well-behaved grass maintains its discrete coloring until the days begin to shorten. Then, its quiet hues flame a fiery burgundy-red that turn orange-brown as they dry.

Blue Heaven little bluestem prefers full sun and grows best in average, well-drained soil. In the heat of summer, it will take drought.

American Beautyberry

Beautyberry tree or American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) transition of unripe green to ripe purple or Beautyberry Shrub with Purple berries

Our native (Callicarpa americana, zones 6-9) is a fast-growing shrub that reaches 3-6 feet tall and wide.  Its shy, lavender or white summer flowers usually go unnoticed.  It isn’t until autumn that this native lives up to its name. It becomes a showy beauty when the insignificant flowers ripen into glowing purple berries that encircle the stems like jeweled bracelets. A bird favorite, beautyberry shows its finest when grown in full sun to partial shade and moister garden soil amended with Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss. As long as its berries are not snapped up by birds, they remain attractive until early winter.

Staghorn Sumac

Sumac Tiger Eyes turns brilliant shades in fall.

Sumac Tiger Eyes (Rhus typhina Tiger Eyes® ‘Bailtiger’, zones 4-8) never suffers a dull day during the growing season.  In spring, finely cut, bright golden-yellow leaves stand against the pink stems of this shrub and make it a colorful standout from the moment its leaves first emerge. It stays colorful into summer, though the leaves may revert to green. Then, in fall, the foliage of Tiger Eyes® converts to riveting oranges and scarlets, putting on a display that is an extravaganza of dazzling, brilliant color. It may also produce spires of deep reddish-orange fruits that will stay attractive into winter.

This fast-growing North American small tree quickly reaches 4-6 feet tall and wide in full to partial sun. It is drought-resistant and tolerates poorer soils but still appreciates a soil amendment, like peat moss, at planting time.


Sweetspire turns shades of purple, orange, yellow, and red in fall. (Image by SB_Johnny)

Little Henry dwarf sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’, zones 5-9) is a great all-purpose shrub that thrives in the sun or shade and looks fine massed in a border or as a foundation plant. It can even naturalize in a woodland.  This petite, 3-4-foot-tall shrub tolerates periods of drought as well as moist soil.

Drooping, elongated clusters of fragrant, ivory flowers blanket the plant in early summer, attracting hordes of butterflies.  The clean, shiny, green foliage is free from serious disease and insect problems and unappealing to deer. In fall, Little Henry’s shiny green leaves turn shades of flamboyant orange before deepening to glowing garnet-red. Its color is most vibrant when the shrubs are grown in sunnier locations.

Spectacular garden plants that look good through summer, but also to put on vivid displays in fall, are doubly cherished.  They extend a garden’s showy season by going out in a blaze of glory.

Growing Hardy Chrysanthemums

‘Hillside Sheffield Pink’ is a classic hardy mum with extra fragrant flowers. (Image by Jessie Keith)

As I recently drove into my local garden center, I noticed the marquee sign along the highway read: FALL MUMS, PLANT NOW! Walk into almost any garden center in fall, and there will be a display of potted chrysanthemums. Most often they are purchased for a quick spot of “annual” color in the garden or front door containers, but some mums are true hardy perennials.

About Chrysanthemums

Mums were first cultivated in China as far back as the 15th century BC and in Japan as early as the 8th century. The cultivated species, Chrysanthemum × morifolium, originates from the Asian  Chrysanthemum indicum crossed with several other putative species. Along with the plum, orchid, and bamboo, the chrysanthemum is known in China as one of the “four gentleman of flowers”.  With their late-blooming season and long-lasting flowers, chrysanthemums are like mature gentleman scholars whose wisdom and integrity grows with each year.

In general, chrysanthemum blooms come in 13 shape classes (daisy, pompon, spider, decorative…read about all classes here) and many colors (white, red, yellow, orange, purple, etc.). Hardy mums tend to have single or decorative double flowers and often spread, forming dense clumps over time. Their hardiness range tends to be within USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9, but some can take even colder winters.

Five Hardy Chrysanthemums

Mums in the Mammoth series were bred in Minnesota and are very hardy.

Some of the finest hardy chrysanthemums include the following:

Gold and Silver Chrysanthemum (Ajania pacifica (formerly Chrysanthemum pacifica)): This is a reliable hardy perennial mum (Zones 5-9) that is easy to grow and does not require high maintenance.  It spreads to form a tidy one-foot blanket of dark green leaves rimmed in white, which makes it an attractive plant even when not in flower.  Clusters of yellow, button-shaped flowers appear in fall.

Chrysanthemum ‘Gethsemane Moonlight’: This hardy mum (Zones 5-9) bears lots of semi-double flowers of primrose yellow starting in October.

Chrysanthemum ‘Hillside Sheffield Pink’: Numerous daisies of apricot-pink cover this classic hardy mum (Zones 5-9) in late October. The flowers are extra fragrant and attract lots of late-season pollinators.

Chrysanthemum Mammoth™ Series: Mums in the Mammoth™ series were bred in Minnesota and are remarkably hardy (Zones 3-9). They come in lots of colors and shapes.

Chrysanthemum ‘Matchsticks’: The lovely flowers of ‘Matchsticks’ are red and gold and have spoon-shaped petals. They are also very hardy (Zones 5-9).

Specialty Chrysanthemums

Specialty chrysanthemums, like this spider mum, are very tender and won’t survive winter.

Large, choice, specialty mums in unusual flower classes are almost always tender and bred for the cut-flower industry or exhibition (think of the ‘football’ mum). I visited with a garden center manager, and she said specialty mums are a very small niche market and won’t survive winter cold. Moreover, they are high maintenance and must be groomed all summer for their pricey fall blooms. They even need be protected from the rain to keep the flowers from being ruined. If you are still ambitious and want to grow grand specialty types, check out the mail-order company King’s Mums in Sand Spring, Oklahoma.  Their quality and selection are excellent.

Cultivating Hardy Mums

‘Matchsticks’ is hardy and has specialty mum looks.

Winter-hardy garden mums can be planted in spring or fall. They must have excellent soil drainage and high organic matter.  I would suggest amending the soil with Black Gold Garden Soil at time of planting. If you plant in spring, be on the lookout for slugs, which will feed on the new growth as it emerges. (Sluggo is the organic pesticide option for managing garden slugs.)

In late spring, it always pays to trim back your mums by half. This will result in shorter, tidier plants with more flowers when fall-time arrives. After flowering, the plants can be cut back to the ground and then mulched with OMRI Listed Black Gold Garden Compost Blend for increased winter protection.

Chrysanthemum Displays

Gold and silver chrysanthemum is an unusual groundcover mum that will survive cold winters.

Not only are garden centers displaying fall mums, but they are also a focus at some botanical gardens. The Lan Su Chinese Garden in Portland, Oregon is one of these gardens.  In keeping with the importance of the chrysanthemum in China, the Lan Su Chinese Garden designates the month of November as ‘Mumvember’.  During this month, they have over 750 potted chrysanthemums on display throughout the garden. Longwood Gardens’ Chrysanthemum Festival is another display of national repute. Their famous 1000-bloom mum is a fantastic work of engineering and horticulture.

While you may find blooming garden mums at any month of the year at a florist or garden center, their natural bloom cycle is in the fall.  So, this is the best time to enjoy them. To learn more about Chrysanthemums, visit the National Chrysanthemum Society.