Annuals for Fantastic Fall Color

Pennisetum 'Rubrum'
Pennisetum ‘Rubrum’ has reddish foliage and grassy plumes that look great until frost. (photo by Jessie Keith)

Many gardens lack for fall color – prompting many gardeners to resort to the ubiquitous fall mum.  Often overlooked, however, are the numerous other annuals for autumn display, many of which come into their glory months before chrysanthemum season.  Their beauty, longevity, and relative novelty make them a refreshing and often preferable alternative to what has become a fall garden cliché.

Chinese Hound’s Tongue

The dazzling, October-sky-blue flowers of Chinese hound’s tongue (Cynoglossum amabile) give the impression of a tall, out-of-season forget-me-not (Myosotis).  In all respects, however, this biennial outshines its spring-blooming cousin, possessing a much longer, summer-to-fall flowering season, as well as attractive, fuzzy, gray-green basal leaves that persist rather than turning to mush.  Sown directly in the garden in spring, it will bear a late-summer to frost succession of clustered blooms on upright stems.  Plants usually self-sow, but not with the prolific abandon of forget-me-not.  Available as seed or occasionally as plants, Chinese hound’s tongue is typically sold in the form of dwarf varieties such as ‘Firmament’, which top out at about 15 inches.  It reaches its zenith, however, in full-size forms (including ‘Blue Showers’), which can reach 30 inches tall.  This East-Asian native takes well to sunny or partly shaded cottage gardens and mixed borders, partnering beautifully with Japanese anemones, colchicums, and other late-blooming perennials.  Dwarf forms do nicely in containers as well as in the open garden.

Woodland Tobacco

Salvia elegans 'Golden Delicious'
Beautiful red flowers and golden leaves make Salvia elegans ‘Golden Delicious’ a great sage for season’s end.

There’s nothing dwarf about woodland tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris), a lordly, bold-leaved, delightfully shaggy plant that holds slender silky-white trumpets on lofty stems that look you in the eye.  Blooming alongside (and above) Chinese hound’s tongue from summer to fall, this heat- and sun-loving tender perennial is also a reliable self-sower, with spontaneous seedlings almost always appearing in spring.  Debuting in mid to late summer and continuing in abundance until frost, the flowers cast an intense, intoxicating, musky-sweet perfume that peaks at night, drawing pollinating moths.  Hummingbirds visit during the day.  Plants can be started from seed sown under cover in early spring, or in the garden at tomato-planting time.  Seedlings (which are sometimes available from nurseries) should be planted out after the last frost date.  Fertile, moist soil is best.

Butter Daisy

For containers and other niches where something more chrysanthemum-like is desired, butter daisy (Melampodium paludosum) is just the ticket.  Low, mounded, bushy, and brassy-flowered, it envelops itself with petite golden-yellow daisies for many weeks beginning in summer.  Seed catalogs and nurseries sell numerous compact varieties, all of which form tight, 8- to 12-inch hummocks of oval, weakly toothed, mid-green leaves, with flowers appearing about 3 months after sowing.  Given a fertile, not overly dry soil, plants will continue blooming profusely until the first heavy frost.  Native to Mexico and Central America, this annual can take the heat and will seed itself around in warmer gardens.

Fall Salvias

Mexico is also home to several cold-tender, shrubby sages notable for their showy late-season bloom.  Among the best are Salvia greggii and its hybrids, which throw numerous spires of richly hued, hummingbird-thronged flowers from late spring until frost.  Cultivars include compact ‘Ultra Violet’ , with vibrant rose-purple flowers on 18-inch stems, and the fiery-flowered ‘Furman’s Red’, whose cherry-vermillion wands can reach 3 feet tall.  At least a dozen other tender Salvia species are indispensable contributors to the fall (and summer) garden, thriving in any well-drained, reasonably fertile growing medium, preferably in full sun.  Salvia elegans ‘Golden Delicious’ is a gold-leaved, red-flowered selection with a, particularly beautiful fall display. Most of the shrubby salvias perform splendidly in containers as well as in the open garden, and a few will survive USDA Zone 6 winters.

Beta vulgaris ssp. cicla 'Ruby Red'
Colorful Swiss chard looks and tastes best in fall.

Red Fountain Grass

The arching, brown-purple leaves of red fountain grass (Pennisetum ‘Rubrum’) make the perfect foil to salvias and other bright summer- and fall bloomers.  Tawny, purple-tinged, plumed flower spikes arch above the foliage in summer and fall.  Thought to be a hybrid of Pennisetum setaceum (although usually listed as a cultivar of same), ‘Rubrum’ rarely self-sows, unlike its prodigiously fertile parent.  At 3 to 4 feet tall and wide, it works wonderfully in large containers or mixed plantings in full sun or light shade.  Typically grown as an annual, it’s a hardy perennial in USDA Zones 9 and warmer.

Swiss Chard

The roster of showy-leaved fall annuals also includes several varieties of chard.  Sow the seeds in summer for a fall display of large, crinkled, often bronze-suffused leaves, with vividly contrasting ribs and veins.  Most named varieties (such as yellow-ribbed ‘Oriole’ and burgundy-ribbed ‘Rhubarb’) feature one contrasting color, but the mix ‘Bright Lights’ contains numerous hues including red, yellow, orange, purple, and creamy white.  Chard’s close cousin, the beet, has also given rise to some showy-leaved varieties.  Among the most notable is ‘Bull’s Blood’, whose deep maroon leaves make for good eating as well as for good ornament.  As with chard, plants mature in fall from a summer sowing. and provide a welcome change of pace from ornamental kale.

About Russell Stafford

Hortiholic and plant evangelist, Russell Stafford, transplanted his first perennial at age 7 and thereby began a lifelong plant addiction. He is the founder and custodian of Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an online nursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. Russell also works as a horticultural consultant, freelance writer (Horticulture and The American Gardener magazines), and garden editor. He formerly served as Curator and Head of Horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan and as the Horticultural Program Coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation, then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University.

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