Field Notes 20

Interior West BY LAUREN SPRINGER / Fort Collins, Colorado, Zone 5

Seeing Orange

MY TASTE IN COLOR has had a midlife change. Several friends attest to similar shifts in their chromatic sensibilities. Color perception is so complex: the physics of light meet the biology of the human eye and brain, and interface with the most intangible organ, the heart. It’s hard enough to explain why we see what we see (and to know if we actually see the same thing). It’s wonderfully impossible to explain why we like what we like.

So after years of preferring subtle, indirect colors, for the last few years I’m off and running with orange. Any time of year. In spring it feeds my color-starved soul with ‘Princes Irene’ tulips, Siberian wallflowers, flowering quinces, the unfurling foliage of the ubiquitous ‘Gold Flame’ spirea. Autumn convinces even nonbelievers to make hay with the color, as sumacs, pumpkins, and all sort of berries grace the end of the growing season. But late summer is perhaps when orange offers the most. Floral abundance lags and the relentless sun renders subtle colors indistinguishable. It is probably no coincidence that most orange flowers bloom at this time, as they are taking advantage of less competition and luring those most precious avian jewels, the hummingbirds, to pollinate them.

A couple of South African plants, aiming for their native clasping sunbirds but getting by with our hovering hummers, brighten the late-summer garden. Kniphofias, especially the long-blooming dwarf charmer ‘Bressingham Comet’, pierce through the arching tawny inflorescences of grasses. In a moister spot, tall, lanky Phygelius capensis begins its late-season show. A high-altitude selection of this species has been available for well over a decade now, and is reliable in Zone 5.

The jaunty spotted tiger lily, L. lancifolium, and its taller, paler orange cousin, L. henryi, are the only lilies to thrive and return year after year in my heavy, alkaline clay soil. Daylilies come much easier. I’m partial to orange daylilies with small, narrow-petaled flowers. It can be hard to find these, though, as the trend is toward large-flowered, dish-faced, ruffly, pastel tetraploids.

An old standby from the New World is trumpet vine, Campsis radicans (pictured), which I grew up with back East. The straight species flourishes equally well in the Interior West; named forms such as ‘Madame Galen’ are not as hardy, though, because of some C. grandiflora blood.

The vast majority of orange summer flowers are southwestern natives. Gold and orange Aquilegia desertorum thrives in dry shade or sun, and flowers nonstop from May until September. Sprawling Zauschneria garrettii ‘Orange Carpet’ is the hardiest and earliest to bloom of its autumnal clan. Penstemon rostriflorus (below) blooms later than most hardy beardtongues, carrying on the brilliant displays of earlier-flowering brethren P. barbatus and P. pinifolius. A relatively new introduction, Scrophularia macrantha, flowers for two months in sprays of orange-red bird-shaped tubular flowers. An arroyo plant, it loves a bit of extra moisture and deep, disturbed soil. Lower-growing Stachys coccinea likes similar conditions and needs a bit of protection in Zone 5. Red yucca, Hesperaloe parviflora, has proved itself bone hardy into Zone 4, although it harks from Zone 7. A soft yellow form is now in the trade; I wonder what the hummingbirds will think. H

Worth growing

Penstemon rostriflorus (also known as P. bridgesii)

This semishrubby, partially evergreen southwestern penstemon is hardy into USDA Zone 4, and thrives in hot sun and the driest, poorest soils. The orange-red tubular flowers bloom in late July, August and into September, the exact time and duration depending upon when the monsoon arrives, or when the gardener decides to add a little water. The plant grows to about 18 inches in height and girth, and like many penstemons, tends to decline after five or more years in the garden. Sources, page 74.

To do in the garden

  • Collect desired seed.

  • Plant autumn crocus and colchicum.

  • Remove spent flower stalks to encourage new foliage growth for stronger, revitalized plants.

  • If you have bearded irises, dig and divide tired stands, rejuvenate the soil with compost, rotted manure, and/or alfalfa pellets (cheap rabbit food), and replant the most vigorous fans (see “Starting Off Right,” page 30).

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