Pink Autumn in the Rockies

Joan Shaw

The last geranium of summer

fter September 12th, the threat of frost is ever-present to the potted geraniums on the porches and on the deck here at DragonGoose Farm. The tension between bringing them into the greenhouse for winter and allowing them to show off their pink blossoms out there for a little longer -- given a favorable weather forecast -- is a fact of life after the average date of northern Utah's first frost.

When the move can be put off no longer -- say, by mid-October when we've pushed our luck as far as it could go -- there's a sense of paragraphs ending. That's when the two layers of 4mm clear plastic goes up on the west porch and the geraniums are clipped back to four or five inches of stem. Then comes the two-hour job of hauling them all inside to start another cycle of growth. By March, of course, the pots will be full of fresh, new foliage, and by May the plants will be covered with blossoms and color again. But May 2001 is far into the future. We're entering Autumn 2000 now.

Surprisingly, Autumn here is full of pink shades -- the colors usually associated with spring and early summer. And many of these pink flowers can withstand the early frosts and go on blooming for us far into our Indian Summer. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), for instance, is a satisfyingly tough garden flower, found also in the wild throughout the northern hemisphere from sea level to the mountains. It's especially prolific here in Utah. Moreover, even in the wild it can be found in shades of pink.

Richard Shaw in Utah Wildflowers mentions the "genetic plasticity" of yarrow which leads to so many and varied colors in subspecies and cultivars. Along both the east and west borders of our cutting garden are deep drifts of Yarrow in pastels (seen below), with rose and pink shades in splendid dominance. These generous displays spring from three plants I sent for some ten years ago called "Summer Shades" from White Flower Farm in Connecticut. I've since seen similar mixtures offered under a variety of names by other nurseries and seed houses, including Thompson & Morgan. Yarrow in shades of pink

Autumn beauty aside, Yarrow dries well for arrangements and wreaths to brighten rooms and porch doors in winter. It has also been used medicinally since the time of Homer. In fact, the genus name, Achillea, is said to have come from the Greek warrior, Achilles, who used the plant to staunch his men's wounds -- beneficial because of the plant's high tannin content. Hence among its common names are Soldier's Woundwort, Knight's Milfoil, and Herbe Militaris. Other medicinal uses for Yarrow , ranging from relief of melancholia through nosebleed and catarrh to baldness, are described at length in the classic, A Modern Herbal (1931, authored by Mrs. McGrieve, F.R.H.S., and reissued by Dorset Press in1978).

The species name, millefolium, refers to its finely cut foliage. The plant does well in drought, due in part to its hairy leaves and stems which cut water loss while deterring pests. The hairy foliage, in turn, makes the foliage appear grey, and yarrow is therefore often suggested as a plant to include for contrast among dark greens, and for its luminosity at dusk in "grey" borders.

Aside from its ability to grow well in dry regions, it has long been revered for its magical properties. In English Herb Gardens, the authors note, "The ancient Chinese text of prophesy, I Ching (The Book of Changes) is consulted properly not by throwing three coins, but by spilling fifty-two yarrow stalks."  In The Gardener's Companion, we find another magical use -- that of a couple carrying the plant at their wedding, thus guaranteeing them at least seven years of marital bliss.

Yarrow can bePink Cone Flower invasive, particularly the three-foot high species such as "Coronation Gold" and the common white yarrow that creeps into lawns as soon as your back is turned. Authors concerned with garden design are almost universally against allowing the plants in the flower bed. But the shorter, 24-inch high, pastel species in our cutting garden is very well behaved in spite of being satisfyingly prolific. It gets along very well, for instance, with our pink and white Garden Phlox (Phlox paniculata), climbing roses, daisies of various types, and the stiffly erect Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea , shown at right).

Purple Coneflower is another nice pink that lasts here long into Indian Summer, and Its deep maroon cones make for a striking contrast in the border. What's more, like so much of the compositae family, it stays fresh for almost a week in the vase. Purple Coneflower also self-seeds and pops up in surprising places, thanks to both the wind and the birds. Its robust stems need no staking and it can withstand thunderstorms as well as anything in the garden.

Outside the window here by my computer is a planting in the herb garden of Meadow Saffron or, as it is sometimes called, Autumn Crocus. This flower is not a true crocus, however, but rather a Colchicum (Colchicum autumnale, pictured below in early morning sunlight). Their corms were moved to that spot by my daughter, Melanie, many years ago. She'd found them under an old lilac shrub where they were planted, evidently, by previous owners long before we moved here in 1969. The autumnale species has a history dating back to at least the mid-1500s, and are marked by a lush dark green growth of leaves in spring and early summer, after which the leaves ripen and disappear. Weeks later, their goblet-shaped, lavender blooms start pushing up through the ground like an autumn ressurection.Pink Colchicum

The Colchicum show follows the spectacular bloom of my duaghter, Melanie's, Lycoris, or Naked Lady (Lycoris squamigera ) nearby, which also comes up after its leaves are long gone. The sudden bloom of the Lycoris from bare ground is especially vivid because, for what is essentially nothing but blooming heads, they are so very tall -- to 24 inches -- and yet these pale pink, trumpet-shaped blooms (pictured below as they looked in August) manage to stay upright through wind and rain almost as well as the purple Coneflowers.

The hollyhocks (Alcea rosea) don't fare as well when the wind blows or the rain beats down. They bend across each other and over walkways, heavy with seed pods. Often, after falling flat across the bricks, three inches of their very ends turn skyward like fingers, as though assuring us that they know which way is up. At this time of year, it's the exception to find a group standing dead straight (as those shown below).
Pink Lycoris
Almost all of our hollyhocks here are the old-fashioned single type, beloved of bees and hummingbirds.  Anyone over the age of, say, fifty or sixty can remember an adult fashioning a doll for her out of these single blossoms during her childhood. Ours are mostly fragrant, a traditional part of cottage gardens, and have the distinction of being remarkably homey looking. There are tidy gardeners who dislike them. And, indeed, hollyhocks can be very untidy. They are plagued with blackspot and slugs in damp climates and, here in semi-arid Utah, the large leaves on the bottom are often filigreed to the point of raggedness by Japanese beetles.

But at their best, they are stately plants, especially in the back of the border. True, they don't like to stay in the back of the border, but rather insist on bellying up to the front, shoving aside the roses, tramping all over the Columbine, suffocating the ground cover. I usually do a wholesale slaughter of half-grown hollyhocks every three or four weeks in one especially tiresome border that's close to the house. But I nevertheless love the hollyhocks, and wouldn't be without them.Hollyhock

This year, I had to leave this hollyhock thinning, along with many many other gardening chores, to Melanie and to hired help -- two wonderfully efficient young women students at Utah State University. In the early summer I'd fractured one of my vertebrae -- believe or not, while doing physical therapy after knee surgery -- and it effectively put me on the bench for Summer 2000.  Or, rather, it put me on my back in bed for so many weeks I thought I'd be ruling the roost from a prone position for the rest of my life. After something like four months of inactivity, however, I'm at last on the move, enjoying autumn, and looking forward to welcoming spring again in 2001.

Best wishes -- and good health! -- to all of you,

Joan Katherine Shaw
September 22, 2000

Photos by Joan Shaw

Graphic artist: Melanie Shaw

Online sources for flowers discussed:

White Flower Farm
Thompson & Morgan
Park Seed
Wayside Gardens

Books available that are mentioned in this essay:

Utah Wildflowers
A Modern Herbal
English Herb Gardens
The Gardeners Companion

Link to browse for gardening books:

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