Star Gardener: How Could It Be October?

Plants that reach their peak and are at their showiest in October
Camellia Winter Star

    What? How could it be October when jolts of fresh colors and sensuous fragrance have been reverberating in the garden all month?
    I don’t mean the last roses of the year or the Coreopsis Full Moon that has been flowering its little yellow heads off since July in the Mimi Meehan Native Plant Garden.

    I do mean plants that reach their peak and are at their showiest in October. There is a clutch of such plants that are easy and give the sense that the inevitable march toward winter is being held at bay, if only for a few weeks: the gardener’s version of Hans Brinker with his finger in the dike.  
    The air in my garden has been filled with a scent almost as heavy and overwhelming as that of gardenias. Closing my eyes and drinking in the perfume with my back toasting in the sun, it’s been easy to believe it was early summer.

    When I planted a row of false holly, Osmanthus heterophyllus, I was thinking solely in terms of evergreen privacy from the neighbors. It has become so much more. In October the trees are covered with small clusters of white flowers. They are not showy in themselves, but there are so many they make an impact when you are nearby. The fragrance, however, has perfumed a broad swath of the garden. The fruit looks a little like olives when it matures in early summer, and this year a pair of orioles spent an entire week devouring it. These past few years deer have begun grazing osmanthus, which does well in shade, but it is a lot lower down the list of favorites than holly and many other evergreens.

    Chrysanthemums and asters are the last showy flowers to open in the sunny garden. Some are still fresh up to and even after a hard frost. A plant can’t get any better than that.

    Bright white Montauk daisies are iconic on the East End. Not so long ago almost every house had at least one clump near the road. An entire embankment covered with them on the Old Montauk Highway en route to Montauk was a dazzling sight and worth the trip; alas, I think it is gone now.

    Korean chrysanthemums in pink and apricot are rugged and last well into November. Calista Washburn’s were a pass-along from Sylvester Manor, where they are gone now, too. However, they are propagated locally and should be available at garden centers.

    Asters are the glory of autumn. Would that so many species not have their foliage killed by mildew on the East End. We have been trying the highly rated Aster laevis Bluebird in the native plant garden. Fortunately it is behind other plants, so its mildewed foliage doesn’t show. A better bet seems to be the lower-growing (about 12 to 18 inches) and later-blooming Wood’s Blue and Wood’s Purple. These are beautifully mounded plants with clean leaves and flowers that began opening in the middle of the month. We will try to have some at the Garden Club of East Hampton’s plant sale next Memorial Day weekend.

    Garnering a rave review from Mrs. Washburn is the tall, very late-flowering Tatarian daisy, Aster tataricus. Its clouds of single sky-blue flowers “read” from a long distance, and it works well as a back of the border plant or in a naturalistic prairie planting. It grows to six feet or higher, but the cultivar Jindai is shorter, growing from three to five feet.

    There are October-flowering perennials for shady areas, too. Friends do well with the trumpet spur flower, Rabdosia longituba, that comes in blue or white. It has graceful footlong sprays of small flowers that sway in the breeze. Another, with an equally terrible botanical name and no common name, is Leucoseptrum stellipilum. It is a terrific foliage plant for the woodland garden throughout the season and in mid-October has spikes of lavender-pink flowers. It is tough and easy; my plant is nearly 20 years old and only needs to be cut back in winter. It is available through mail order, with variegated or solid-green leaves.

    Camellias began opening late this year, but are now going full tilt. Camellia fans should bring flowers from their bushes to the meeting of the Jim Jeffrey Camellia Group on Saturday, at 10 a.m., at the Horticultural Alliance Library in the Bridgehampton Community Center.

    The Seven-Son flower, Heptacodium miconioides, and Tetradium danielii (or Evodia danielii) are trees covered in fruits that have all the appearance of flowers in October. The dazzling tree at the entrance to Breadzilla in Wainscott is the heptacodium. Both trees have lovely but not showy white flowers in August, but two months later the rose calyxes on the heptacodium and red fruit on the tetradium are spectacular.

    As the cold settles in, let’s not forget the pleasures of red berries on hollies, both evergreen and deciduous, and viburnums. The tea viburnum, V. setigerum, is so heavy with brilliant fruit its branches will remain pendulous until flocks of birds strip them bare, perhaps in January.

    And thus the garden year progresses, bringing with it thoughts of spring renewal just a few months ahead.

Heptacodium Abby Jane Brody Photos