It's Act 3 of the gardening year as autumn approaches. It might be fun to meet some of the plants that brighten our surroundings as summer dissolves into fall.
Poinciana, or red Mexican bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima). Its leaves may give it away as a member of the big bean family, but this plant is no ordinary pea from that pod. In fact, it's hard to imagine a showier flower. The plant grows to 6-8 feet tall and wide (taller farther south), but it's equally at home in a large patio pot.
Poinciana grows in hot, blazing sun, and blooms all summer and well into the fall. It's a butterfly favorite. Like the football star who's also good-looking and smart, this plant has just about everything going for it. Everything, that is, except winter hardiness. It's a subtropical star that falls victim to North Texas' cold winters unless you have a way to store it in a greenhouse.
Confederate rose (Hibiscus mutabilis). As long as we're dealing with showstopping bloomers, this heirloom Southern favorite accommodates the crowd that's looking for soft pink amid fall's bright oranges and yellows.
If you know the plants we typically call hardy hibiscus (rose mallows), this one looks just like they do, only two or three times larger and bolder. Given a warm winter, it can take on the proportions of a large shrub with trunks the size of broom handles.
Its double roselike, pink/white flowers are 4 to 6 inches across, and they often shade toward red by the end of the day. It freezes to the ground in North Texas, but it's a willing perennial, coming back strong each spring.
Confederate rose needs full or nearly full sun, reasonably good soil and ample moisture. Many of its native hardy hibiscus cousins actually grow in boggy ditches and creek beds. Give this plant a 10-foot diameter spot in the back of the garden, and prepare to be dazzled.
Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida). It doesn't really resemble the marigold, but it's a great plant nonetheless. Hardy to Zone 8, it's borderline in the D-FW Metroplex, but even if it freezes, it's easy enough to replant come spring. And the rewards are always great. The flowers are fabulous, and the aroma is amazing. Call it aniselike or similar to licorice, it's great either way.
Mexican mint marigold grows in full or partial sun to a height of 20 to 24 inches. It's all-foliage all summer. When fall migrates in, so do the plants' beautiful blossoms -- and the hundreds of Monarch butterflies that stop to nuzzle their nectar. It makes for a beautiful sight in the perennial beds. And, best of all, it suffers none of the traditional marigold maladies.
Fall aster (Aster oblongifolius). Blues and purplish lavenders aren't common in the fall garden, but here's a proven one through generations of Texas gardeners. It grows to 18 to 24 inches tall and wide. It's hardly noticeable all spring and summer. Suddenly, it pops into flower in the fall, and everyone (including the butterflies) falls in love all over again.
For several generations, about the only way you could get this venerable plant was to mooch one from a neighbor. It does clump, and it is started from divisions that you can make early in the spring, before new growth begins. Now it is sold in garden centers, but be sure you're getting this particular aster. Other asters aren't nearly as convinced that our state is a great place to flourish.
One suggestion on growing fall asters: Tip-prune them late in the spring. Shear them lightly, to remove the growing points of each stem. That will make them branch, and it will keep the plants full and compact the rest of the summer and all the way through its blooms.
As with Mexican mint marigold and poinciana, fall asters will be covered with butterflies. Then, once the butterflies have left town and the plants have finished flowering, you're free to trim them back to the ground. And thus, the cycle is set to begin once again.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens Magazine and hosts Texas Gardening on WBAP AM/FM Saturdays noon- 1 p.m. and Sundays 9 a.m.-noon. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.