Jewels of autumn
You don't need designer plants for a show, says Marie Staunton
I'm always on the lookout for unusual plants that will add more interest to the garden at various times of the year. I spend a lot of time travelling on buses and trains and I get a great view of gardens, mostly from the upper deck of buses.
More mature gardens are packed with plants that have lost favour with garden designers, but I'm going to champion their cause because you need to know about them before you can decide if you would like to give them a home.
Plants that offer something extra across a couple of seasons are worth spending a few euro on, and one of my favourites is the smoke bush, Latin name Cotinus coggygria 'Royal Purple'. This plant has the most beautiful dark-wine to purple-coloured leaves; back-lit with a bit of evening sunshine, it takes on all those beautiful autumnal colours that light up a garden at this time of the year.
If that wasn't enough to whet your appetite, during the early part of the flowering season, after a heavy dew on an early summer morning, this plant takes on a real ethereal quality. The plumes glisten and, from a distance, it looks as if the plant is shrouded in smoke.
There is a variety called Golden Spirit – its leaves are green, turning coral and orange as we head into autumn. If it's positioned in a very sunny spot, the leaves can turn almost golden. Both varieties prefer full sun and a nice amount of heat to perform well – sounds a bit like me really.
Although considered a bush, it will develop into a small tree in time, so prune out any old or dead wood in spring, before it comes into leaf again. Both varieties can be hard-pruned in late winter, or very early spring, if you just want the foliage rather than the flowers.
Next up for a mention is the wonderful Sambucus, which should not be confused with the after-dinner drink. This is a very beautiful plant that should be seen more widely in Irish gardens. It is the perfect backdrop to the white-flowered Hydrangea 'Annabell'.
The variety Sambucus nigra 'Black Lace' is bred from our native elder, but it stands out because of the very dark wine-coloured, almost black foliage. The striking pink-tinged blooms make it a good choice for any garden, especially if it is slightly waterlogged, and in autumn the leaves turn a gorgeous crimson. This plant is a good candidate for hard pruning in early spring if the foliage is your priority.
Aralia is probably one of the more unusual plants that you will come across in a garden centre and I reckon that you will love this one. Aralia spinosa is known commonly as the devil's walking stick because, out of leaf, the gnarled stems look a bit surreal. Its common name is the Angelica tree.
The reason that I particularly like the Aralia elata 'Silver Umbrella' is because of the brightly coloured stems and the cream-tinged leaves. The stems are more red than wine-coloured and, against the pale leaves, they make quite an impact. In winter, it looks like a couple of very uninteresting branches, so place it at the back of a border where it can grow away happily.
Now, these plants are quite expensive because they are a bit of a nightmare to propagate, and the Dutch growers bud them on a very specific day of the year when conditions are perfect to ensure best results.
This is the time of the year when you need to be thinking about next spring. Your local garden centre will now be selling spring and summer bulbs for planting out in September/ October. More hard work, I know, but if you get it done sooner rather than later then the autumn jobs won't pile up.