The plants that change colour through the seasons

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Hydrangea serrata ‘Preziosa’ : Species hydrangeas are often more refined than the macrophylla types and this is certainly true of ‘Preziosa’, whose colour range is little affected by soil pH. The small mopheads emerge green before becoming creamy lemon, then white, pink, blue and finally red. The wiry stems are attractively dark and reach about 1.4m. Give it water in summer and partial shade for the longest show. Let it flop over purple Japanese maples or combine with warm dahlias and blood grass (Imperata cylindrica).

Actinidia kolomikta: An unusual relative of the kiwifruit, originating from Korea, China and Japan, and grown not primarily for its fruit (which are small but still tasty in female clones) but for its unique leaves that look like they have been tagged by graffiti artists. Not every leaf, but most, bear white tips which age to pink. This twining vine is long- lived and vigorous, ideal for a shaded wall if it is well wired. But protect the base from cats, who find it irresistible. From Green Leaf Nurseries.

Japanese meadowsweet: I still can’t tell if this clever little shrub produces white flowers that mature to pink or actually sends up simultaneously the two colours at once, as is often claimed, but either way the effect is memorable. Spiraea japonica (pictured is the variety ‘Shirobana’) are perhaps not the most exciting of plants, but they are a good size for small gardens and flower when most shrubs have already done their dash. Be sure to prune hard after flowering or in early spring for the biggest flowers.

Rodgersia ‘Superba’: One of those statuesque and beefy plants you need to give more puny flowers something to lean on. Every part of it is attractive, from the initially pink, star-shaped flowers on a branching red stalk to the scalloped leaves, but this beauty takes time to establish, so dig plenty of compost or leaf mould into the soil and give it a stream or pond bank, as well as a little partial shade through the day to encourage it to bulk up. From Wake Robin Nursery.

Persicaria affinis: The fleece flower, with its drumstick blooms in myriad candycane shades, is native to the rocky Himalayan slopes and so suits rockeries or being grown over paving or down walls. Unusually, the whole plant turns chestnut brown rather than truly packing up shop for winter and the effect may be an acquired taste, but trim it and it will spring back in late spring to repeat the performance.

Sedum ‘Red Cauli’: One of the best of the new sedums, this has perhaps the reddest flowers of all. In my garden it tends to be a bit lanky at 30cm and needs propping up owing to its telephium blood. However, if you give it a rich soil and plenty of sunshine, you’ll be rewarded with glaucous purple-tinged leaves and then cauliflower-like blooms which fade to russet seedheads. Combine with black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) and late-flowering red Hesperantha coccinea.

Mexican daisy: Erigeron karvinsianus used to be popular for its daisies in shades from rose to white and its long flowering period (nearly all year in mild regions), but is now classed as a weed. If you already have it, don’t give it away or let it spread as it gets into delicate native habitats and pushes out indigenous species. Young plants have fibrous roots and are easily dug or pulled up, but seedlings are numerous, especially in light soils, so control with a herbicide such as Roundup.

Lunaria annua: Often called honesty or silver dollar plant after its flattened seedcases which light up the winter garden (or the vase) with the sun behind, but are equally attractive in late summer as they change from green to purplish red. After flowering this biennial will die, so allow the seed cases to remain so it self-seeds, giving you clouds of mauve crucifer flowers in early spring which combine well with the gold hues of polyanthus and kerria. Look out for the rarer, white-flowered form and varieties with variegated leaves.

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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 

Actinidia kolomikta  is a relative of the kiwifruit, grown for its unusually marked leaves.
neil ross

Actinidia kolomikta is a relative of the kiwifruit, grown for its unusually marked leaves.

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, 

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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

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