As the hot days of summer succumb to the cool, crisp season that is fall, many gardeners choose to take advantage of this great weather for outdoor projects. Of course mums and black-eyed Susans will dominate many landscapes each September, but the huge palette of late performers is sorely overlooked and certainly deserves closer examination. Although there are many fall-blooming plants available, most remain severely underused; far fewer gardeners visit garden centers in the fall and those that do rarely make it past the mums, pansies, and spring-blooming bulbs.
Great varieties of asters, anemones, pink turtleheads, toad lilies, sedum, and of course ornamental grasses are loaded with colorful flowers or beautifully textured foliage. Eupatorium maculatum (or fistulosum) or Joe Pye weed, adds large, stately flowers, a robust growth habit, and durability to your fall plant choices.
Joe Pye weed is native to North America, but is more commonly used in the finest gardens of Europe. In more dry and less fertile conditions, plants may only grow to 4 or 5 feet, but moist, fertile soil will produce plants up to 8 feet tall. Its pinkish purple flowers are produced in clusters that form larger clusters reaching up to 18 inches across. Large green leaves are attached to rich burgundy stems resulting in a striking contrast of colors on each stalk. Plants prefer full or partial sun where the stems grow strong and rarely require staking. If extensive soil preparation isn’t your cup of tea, Joe Pye weed may be the plant for you. It thrives in the moist, heavy soil conditions that are typical in our mostly clay Michigan gardens. It is long-lived and extremely durable; last year a specimen in our display garden was mistaken for a weed and almost completely removed. It grew back this year and is now covered with large flowers that butterflies and bees find irresistible. Eupatorium spreads slowly but may eventually overstep its boundaries. This can be controlled in spring by dividing the whole clump or simply removing outside sections of the plant’s crown.
Joe Pye weed’s massive size makes it perfect to use in the back of a border. Combine it with other large, late bloomers that have contrasting colors, flower forms, and foliage. Try the blue, pink, or purple flowers of asters, especially the taller varieties like ‘Alma Potschke,’ ‘Patricia Ballard,’ and ‘Sailor Boy.’ The huge flowers of hardy hibiscus are available in red, pink, or white. Try the new pink-flowered variety of hibiscus called ‘Copper King;’ it’s one of the best new plants for 2000. Some rudbeckia varieties can also provide equally large plants and brightly contrasting yellow or gold flowers. For a great foliage contrast, try the silver leaves and lavender-blue flowers of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia). Position the massive architectural foliage of plume poppy (Macleaya cordata) next to Joe Pye weed for a great combination of flowers and foliage. Don’t forget ornamental grasses; some of the larger types like switch grass, feather reed grass, or maiden grass would provide contrasting foliage and winter interest.
In your front yard where only the tidiest and most multi-seasonal plants are useful, Joe Pye weed may have a place. Its large size and controllable vigor work well in combination with common shrubs. Its flowers fill the need for a sizable fall-blooming plant where only rose of Sharon, summersweet, butterfly bush, and blue mist shrub are common. Other tidy and multi-seasonal perennials for the front yard include upright sedum, daylilies, hostas, ornamental grasses, and of course, groundcovers.
For a sturdier, more compact Joe Pye weed, the variety of choice is ‘Gateway,’ topping out at 4 to 5 feet in height. There are two other species of Eupatorium that are worth mentioning. Hardy ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum) has blue ageratum-like flowers on 2 to 3 foot tall plants. Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’ has insignificant white flowers, but beautiful brown leaves on 3 to 4 foot tall plants. This foliage is incredible when contrasted with other gold, red, silver, or even green leaves. These two varieties, like Joe Pye weed, will tolerate moist heavy soil, are very hardy, and prefer full or partial sun, although ‘Chocolate’ will take some shade.
As fall approaches please remember that the gardening season is far from over. Gardening becomes even more enjoyable and plants tolerate being moved more easily when temperatures are cooler. Take a moment to evaluate your landscape and see where fall interest is needed and perhaps try Eupatorium to add height, texture, and architectural interest to your garden.
George Papadelis is the owner of Telly’s Greenhouse in Troy, Michigan.