Fall is a great time to add new plants to the garden, and it is an even better time to pick out plants to add seasons of color to the garden. Why? Some flowers and shrubs, like vitex, wait until fall to flaunt their real beauty.
Vitex agnus-castus, also known as chaste tree, lilac chaste tree, and chaste berry, is a large shrub commonly found in regions south of northeast Kansas. Vitex’s large light-purple spikes of blossoms somewhat resemble a lilac or a butterfly bush. Most importantly, vitex is blooming in full force now, in October, when most plants are fading for the dormant season.
Although vitex is generally listed as being hardy to USDA hardiness zone 6, its roots survived even last winter’s low temperatures in our area. Since the plant easily puts on five to six feet of growth in a single season, vitex can really be thought of as a large perennial. Just cut it back in the spring and let it fill in around summer-blooming plants before it begins to show its color in August.
Like many native southern species, vitex thrives in hot, dry weather and should be planted in a well-drained location that receives at least six hours of sun per day. Leave it room to grow over the summer. One word of caution – vitex leaves bear a striking resemblance to those of the marijuana plant and may confuse your neighbors. Leaf shape and arrangement are the only things vitex and marijuana have in common, though.
Another plant that often gets overlooked in spring trips to the garden center is bush clover, or Lespedeza thunbergii. Bush clover is also somewhat of a giant perennial, reaching six feet or so in a single season but dying back to the ground most winters. By early August, bush clover’s stems are loaded with soft, rosy-purple blossoms. The plant’s graceful arching habit softens the garden while the blossoms perfume the air with a light but sweet fragrance.
Bush clover prefers well-drained soil but will tolerate a few hours of shade. The plant has a lesser-liked but better-known cousin, Sericea lespedeza, but bush clover rarely reseeds and is not considered invasive like the Sericea.
My third favorite selection for fall color is Beautyberry, Callicarpa americana. Beautyberry actually bloomed its little heart out back in July, and even I paid it little attention at the time. The fruit of beautyberry is the real attraction — iridescent deep purple pearls, clustered up and down each stem near the leaf axils.
Late afternoon sun and a light fall breeze makes the plant shimmer from a distance. Beautyberry grows in almost any combination of light and moisture but produces the most fruit when grown in full sun. The shrub is native to Missouri, Oklahoma, and much of the southeast United States. Over time, beautyberry can grow to six to eight feet tall and wide, but can be pruned to maintain a smaller size. A close relative, Callicarpa dichotoma (also called beautyberry), is smaller and therefore more commonly used in the landscape, although it may produce less fruit. Birds and other wildlife will eat the beautyberry fruit over the course of the winter. A final favorite for fall color is the crape (crepe) myrtle. In the south, crape myrtle is a small tree, but in Kansas, the plant often dies back partially in winter. The dieback allows most varieties of crape myrtle to easily be maintained as small- to moderately-sized shrubs.
One variety in particular, ‘Velma’s Royal Delight’ was introduced by Kansas State University and typically reaches three to five feet in height and width. ‘Velma’s Royal Delight’ puts on a brilliant display of magenta flowers from August to frost. ‘Hopi’ is another variety of crape myrtles commonly recommended for our region, with rosy-pink flowers and an end-of-summer height of six to eight feet. Crape myrtles generally have a narrow growth habit.
A number of other crape myrtles are available and suitable for our region, with colors ranging from shades of pink, purple, and red to bright white. Now I just have to find a space in my garden for great fall color.