Look lower for color
Fall color found closer to the ground
September 20, 2007
PHOTOS:  CHARLA BORCHERS LEON, Victoria County Master Gardener
Utilizing grasses ensures color in the landscape. The purplish foliage of the purple fountain grass is topped by rose-red flower spikes in late summer to early fall. It stands out in texture and color in most every setting.
Particularly known as a fall blooming bulb, the oxblood lily or Rhodophiala bifida begins to bloom in early September. Recently transplanted in bloom to a pot for a gift, this plant will thrive well when planted in full sun or light shade of deciduous trees.
Firespike, or Odontonema strictum, grows about 5 feet tall in the shade and is beginning to show its red spikes at this time of the year. This perennial will continue to bloom until the first frost.
"Texas has been graced with many kinds of horticultural blessings; unfortunately, fall color isn't generally considered one of them," says Greg Grant, a contributing editor for Texas Gardener magazine.

Going back to elementary school, when the teacher asked the class to show the four seasons with color, students would often illustrate fall with trees like those found in the Northeastern part of the U.S. by coloring them a beautiful gold. We won't find that when we look around the Victoria area. But if we shift our eyes lower to the ground we just might find some real beauties to brighten our fall season.

We can be assured of color if we plant perennials that specialize in showing their color in the fall. One such plant is the confederate rose, or Hibiscus mutabilis. Needing full sun and lots of room, this is a shrub that has carnation-like flowers that open white then turn pink.

One variety is called Plena. There are several of these here in Victoria, usually found as a specimen shrub in the landscape.

The Copper Canyon daisy, or Tagetes lemmonii, is an American native that will cover itself with small yellow flowers in the fall. This plant will only grow about 3 feet tall and about that in width in full sun, and is very aromatic. When growing in a landscape, it will look like blooming chrysanthemums. But unlike the mums, this daisy can withstand frost and will keep on blooming.

A fall blooming plant that can be grown in the shade is firespike, or Odontonema strictum. The plant grows to about 5 feet tall, and, beginning in August, will start showing red spikes of flowers. Flowering begins just in time for the migrating hummingbirds that come through our area. Blooming will continue until the first frost. Since this is a tropical, it will freeze to the ground. Fortunately, it will return the following year. This one is a real beauty. A pink cultivar is available.

One of my particular favorite fall blooming flowers is the giant turk's cap, or Malvaviscus arboreus. It can grow to 6 feet tall and, when blooming, is stunning with its 3-inch red flowers dangling from the branches like bells. Like the firespike, it is a tropical and will freeze, but will return the following year.

The fall aster, or Michaelmus daisy, is a native Texas plant that will burst into a mass of lavender flowers in the fall. It is drought tolerant and likes sun to part shade. Trim back after blooming is completed, then plant calendulas or other colorful blooming plants near for color later in the season.

Any variety of marigold is a good fall blooming selection to have in your landscape. The spider mites, which plague marigolds in the spring, begin to decline in the fall, so you will probably have greater flowering success. These grow easily from seed, or pick up a pack of these from a garden center or nursery.

Don't forget about zinnias. Plant seeds in late summer. The colorful flowers will brighten your garden, and delight the butterflies.

The empress candlestick, or Senna alata, can grow 6 to 15 feet tall with beautiful yellow spikes. Like the firespike, it is tender and will freeze. It may or may not come back from the root but there will be new plants the next year since it is a prolific seed-bearer.

Bulbs are usually thought of as spring bloomers, but some will shine in the fall. Oxblood lilies or Rhodophiala bifida begin to bloom in early September.

Red spider lily or Lycoris radiata emerges later with 18-inch stems topped with spidery red flowers.

The autumn crocus or Sternbergia lutea has yellow goblet-like blooms on 6-inch stems. All of these bulbs do well in full sun or light shade of deciduous trees.

Another way to insure fall color in the landscape is with grasses. Purple fountain grass is a sure winner. The purplish foliage is topped by rose-red flower spikes in late summer to early fall.

Several varieties of maidengrass are available as well. This grass is easy to grow and maintain. The blooms start in the fall with light-colored plumes and golden bronze to tan fall foliage.

Pampas grass is a large clumped grass that can be used as a screen, or as the Texas Highway Department has used it on the overpass edges here in town, for erosion control. The white plumes of autumn are beautiful.

For those with limited space, placing any one of these plants into a container will help light your balcony or patio with fall color.

There are many other fall flowering plants. However, I hope you will stop and evaluate what you have growing and incorporate some of these plants into your landscape.

Many of these plants will be available at the master gardener plant sale Sept. 29 at the 4-H Activity Center, 289 Bachelor Drive, located next to the Victoria Educational Gardens at the Victoria Regional Airport. The sale begins at 8 a.m.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas Cooperative Extension-Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, Texas 77901; or
vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.