The plants that change colour through the seasons
Things which slip from one hue to another always fascinate. In nature the ultimate shifters are leaves blazing goodbye in autumn, but some are equally interesting saying hello in spring when they do the whole process in reverse. Take Japanese maples – photinias and pieris too – which begin the season in flashes of fire, then mellow and resort to green for a civilized summer. Other plants, flowers in particular, have a habit of fading attractively in summer and as they do, revealing hidden pigments which provide unexpected glamour.
If, like me, you've left a sofa unprotected by a sunny window, you may not equate fading to something to be embraced with glee, but certain plants turn maturity into a virtue and like a retro pair of designer jeans, they just get more interesting the more stonewashed, ripped and distressed they become. Such transforming flowers are the ones which tend to be naturally good for drying – the sorts which are tough in texture with
a naturally low water content. Bract-like flower parts, such as on flowering dogwoods and the many euphorbias, are naturally good turners, but it's the hydrangeas which most effortlessly shift through the gears. Speckled pinks, purples, amethysts and even a racy dash of purple if the weather is right (that's dry and gently cooling)… and all
this within a single flowerhead. It's
a dazzling mosaic mystery and a large hydrangea in full flight has the ability to stop you in your tracks with all the antique shades of a Tiffany lampshade or the ink-marbled inside jacket of an old book. A reliable hydrangea for its fading tints is 'Preziosa', which slips from pinks and whites to a robust red, but green-tinged sorts like 'Annabelle' and the paniculata hybrids are exciting too, reliably tipping into white before blushing in glowing, speckled pinks.
The sedums are another plant group worth watching. Their descent to winter brown can vary depending on the situation and the base colour they begin with. Good old Sedum 'Herbstfreude' is still one of the best and though it begins an unremarkable, almost muddy pink, in an exposed and cool garden, you may end up with heads of glowing ruby red
by autumn. Not dissimilar is the way that the tight heads
of rodgersias mature. This is a noble plant for a damp position in any part of the country that gets a cold winter. The flowers float like candyfloss above muscular leaves and show their resilience as they stand tall through winter, fading from creams to pinks and then deep brick reds before the leaves die down.
The fading of flowers is so intriguing because two or three colours jostling together on one plant creates something akin to the shimmer of a glitterball or a fish's scales. Heleniums are great plants for this – all the colours of a bonfire within one flurry of daisies, as yellows become russets then bleed into coppery reds. In this bevy of pinks, the heat of helenium is something of an anomaly and another almost unique colour combination is that of the old favourite, China rose Rosa x odorata 'Mutabilis'. For much of the year in mild localities, bushes can be smothered with both the freshly opened soft apricot flowers as well as the ragged older blooms in the deep rose pink to which they fade. A smaller bush, the perennial wall flower Erysimum 'Pastel Patchwork' (available from Parva Plants), offers nearly the same fruit salad blend of shades.
Before it became a noxious outlaw, the introduced daisy Erigeron karvinskianus used to delight gardeners with its myriad daisies dancing the jig in a glittering medley of white, pink and rose. Now the classic Mexican daisy is classed as a weed, but sterile cultivars are available – look for Erigeron 'LA Pink' at your garden centre, which will give you the same effect of a froth of pink and white with no guilt. Or try Persicaria affinis,
a now hard-to-find little polygonum which covers itself in clubs of flowers which open the palest pink before maturing
to a deep rose and eventually turning russet brown.
Of course it's not just flowers which transform as they age; seeds too can turn on the charm. Honesty, that reliable biennial of hedge bases, can offer up little windows of wonder as its disk-like cases ripen and the drying tissues turn the colours of stained glass. The process doesn't last long, but all the more reason to catch those small moments of magic.
And again, Japanese maples prove themselves worthy
of a space in even the smallest garden. Even without their autumn and spring colours and lightness of shape they would be worth a place in every garden just for their helicopter seeds which, in
the purple-leaved varieties, turn a rich scarlet as a portent to the autumnal delights round the corner. ✤
- NZ Gardener