Six on Saturday:  Early Autumn Beauty

Colocasia ‘Blue Hawaii’

Today I’m thinking of my friend Linda, who recently moved from Virginia to New England, and I’m wondering what sort of weather she is enjoying in her garden today.  We’ve had a few storm systems speed up the coast since she left, bringing rain and wind from well south of us to New England and Canada.  We heard that Hurricane Ida actually ended up as a blizzard in Greenland.

While the calendar may promise cooling temperatures, we continue baking in the late summer heat and high humidity here in coastal Virginia.   The plants are tired.  We find freshly fallen leaves each day now, and the dogwood trees have already begun to turn towards their scarlet finale.    Spiderwebs shimmer across pathways and openings as the zipper spiders grow fat and shiny.  There are plenty of smaller prey for them to feast on, still.

So many leaves on trees and perennials grow ratty in September as insects eat holes in them and dry days leave them with crispy edges.  Perhaps that is why the elephant ears stand out so beautifully in these closing weeks of the growing season.

Alocasia grows with Caladiums and ferns

I listened to landscape designer, ecologist, author and U.VA professor Cole Burrell lecture for the International Master Gardener College this past week about planting ecologically responsible landscapes in our home gardens.  After talking about carbon cycles and nitrogen cycles and water cycles and improving the soil, he turned to the matter of native plants vs. imported ones.  He is as steeped in the wisdom of fellow ecologists and designers like Dr. Doug Tallamy and Rick Darke, Piet Oudolf and Ken Druse as the next expert.  It was good to hear him speak about the importance of the emotional connection that the gardener has with certain plants as an important consideration in deciding what to plant around one’s home.

We understand how important it is for our gardens to support a wide variety of insect life.  When you welcome insects, you also support birds. You support reptiles and other small animals. When you welcome insects, you allow the caterpillars that grow into beautiful butterflies and moths.  You allow for the decomposers so important to producing new soil.  Insects are crucial in supporting the life of our gardens, and most insects, especially butterflies, need native plants as the host plants for their larvae.

Colocasia ‘Tea Cups’ grows with Caladiums and Epimedium

But as important as it is to build our gardens around native plant species, we also have space to include plants that bring us joy; even when those plants originated elsewhere around the globe.  And those imported plants can also fill important niches in our garden’s ecology.  Burrell noted that as the season extends into earlier springs and later autumns, sometimes it is the imported plants, like spring flowering bulbs from Europe and Western Asia, that bloom early enough to support emerging bees and other insects.  Butterflies and hummingbirds will visit a huge variety of flowers to sip nectar, native or not.  I appreciated Burrell’s sensible and sensitive approach to this hot topic. 

It is often the native trees- the oaks, maples, black cherry, tulip trees, redbuds and others, that support the most insect species.   Preserving native woody species in our yards can allow us to indulge in some favorite herbaceous plants for color and fun.

Caladium ‘Puppy Love’ grows with a potted Osmanthus and native Conoclinium in a corner of the patio.

Which brings me back to elephant ears.  By early autumn, they have come into the height of their beauty.  They thrive in heat and humidity.  Their bold leaves and bright colors bring me joy.  There is nothing ‘native’ about the bold Caladiums, Colocasias and Alocasias I crave, and maybe that gives them a bit of protection from the critters that would otherwise eat them.  

I’m learning it is easier to grow them in pots than to try to plant and dig them every year.  They aren’t crowding out some native something or spreading invasively.  Their pots will come back inside before Thanksgiving, unless the record heat of 2021 hangs on even later than we expect.  If so, these tropical beauties won’t mind a bit.  They handle the heat far more gracefully than I, and they are far more forgiving of climate change than many other familiar garden plants that can’t take the extended heat.

Colocasia ‘Black Coral’ grows with purple Oxalis and native Rudbeckia

Their huge leaves filter pollutants from the air, including carbon dioxide, and provide shade to other plants nearby.  Even if an insect isn’t eating them, they have purpose and beauty.

I hope my New England friends will enjoy a beautiful autumn soon, if they aren’t, already.  And I hope that we have at least a few days of beautiful clear September skies with cool breezes and chilly evenings soon. But if that is too much to hope for, I’ll still take comfort in the beautiful tropical elephant ear plants we can grow deep into the season, the lingering flowers and butterflies, and all of the beauty Virginia offers during Indian summer.

A dark form female Easter Tiger Swallowtail butterfly nectars on Buddhleia davidii, butterfly bush, not a native, but oh so much enjoyed by pollinators.
With appreciation to The Propagator, who hosts Six on Saturday each week.

14 comments

    • There have been very good speakers, and all of the lectures will be available for the next several months. I am looking forward to listening to more of them in the coming weeks. It is good to hear folks talking about these topics. cheers! ❤ ❤ ❤

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  1. All that tropical ‘looking’ foliage seems odd for Virginia. To me, it seems more appropriate for Southern California and Florida. I think of Virginia as being more comparable to New England, perhaps because that is how I think of Williamsburg.

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    • Well Tony, history and culture would certainly suggest that Virginia is more similar to New England than to Southern California! But these tropical plants do exceptionally well in the hot, humid climate of our coastal areas. They are gaining in popularity because they are so incredibly easy to grow well. Because we have so many deer, they are popular with folks who have had difficulties with deer eating other plants. These are very irritating to the mouths of grazers.

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      • Oh, I know Virginia is very different from California. (California is VERY different from everywhere else.) I just think of the gardens as being more like those of New England, perhaps because of what was popular there a long time ago, and what is maintained in historic gardens and landscapes. Landscapes of Florida tend to ‘look’ more like they belong in the South, even though they are not far from Virginia, either geographically or culturally.

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      • We have been having a terrible time with ‘boxwood blight’ and some bacterial diseases that attack woody roots. The extra rain and longer, hotter season are taking their toll on plants used in traditional gardens. What you see in books of photos of Colonial Williamsburg isn’t necessarily what regular folks use in their home gardens anymore, either. You see a lot more use of grasses, native perennials, and A LOT of crape myrtles. There is still a lot of lawn in our area, but folks are having to find alternatives to boxwood- like some of the Japanese and Chinese hollies. We are also using Ilex vomitoria in some areas where we want compact, rounded shrubs with fine foliage. Climate change has been very challenging to local gardeners. With folks moving around the country so much, I think there is a lot of blurring of geographical styles, too. People want what feels familiar and makes them happy.

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      • Yes, that happens everywhere. It is nothing new here because most people in California are from somewhere else. I suppose that if I lived in Virginia, I would want palm trees.

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      • ❤ Yes, Tony, and folks in the Virginia Beach areas can grow palms and banana trees outdoors year round, (8a, at least) especially if they have some shelter. I would love to grow more succulents, and always enjoy books and articles showcasing the wonderful succulent gardens folks have in California. Few of the really nice varieties are hardy enough for us here. And we can't grow palm trees outdoors in Williamsburg.

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      • Actually, the windmill palm, Trachycarpus fortunei, should do well there. It does quite well in the Pacific Northwest, and in Oklahoma City. I believe that it survives near the coast in New England. Also, the scrub palm, Sabal minor, from McCurtain County in Oklahoma should perform well there, although it does not develop a trunk.

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      • I neglected to ask; would you like me to send a seedling of windmill palm, Trachycarpus fortunei? I believe that I can send as many as four. They are in cans out there, but can be removed from their cans and sent bare root. They are delightful small palms, although they eventually get somewhat tall, with very shaggy trunks. I prefer to shave the trunks, but that is a lot of work, which I do not recommend unless you really prefer that look.

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      • Tony, that is an incredibly generous offer. Thank you. I’ve never (successfully) grown any Cycad, so it would be an adventure. It looks like it is hardy to Zone 7, 10F with some protection from winds, so I believe it will grow here OK. If you will remind me of your email address, we can work out the details through email.

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      • My email address is lghorticulture@aol.com. I need only your address. Should I send all four? They may not seem like they do anything over winter, but they sneakily disperse roots, which is good even if they remain confined to pots. I will send them bare root, so they should get potted rather soon after arrival. When potted, they should get buried deeper than they had been, with only their foliage sticking above the medium. Windmill palm is a real palm, so is not related to cycad. Anyway, I can explain more later.

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