Plants That Age Gracefully

These stars of the late-season border keep their good looks


PLANTS HAVE A LIFE SPAN during which they leaf out, flower, reach their peak, and then fade away. How plants look as they fade is every bit as important as their youthful appearance, and often has more impact in the border, for it is just after they bloom that they are at their largest and most prominent. Don’t you wish those prepubescent models in the glossy magazines had a middle-aged version standing right next to them, and then a crone, showing the same outfit worn at all stages of life? It would be useful, if equally unlikely, for each plant at the nursery to have a little photo on its tag clearly showing how it looks in its waning days.

The very changeability of plants is one of their most enchanting qualities. The challenge is to turn that changeability into an asset rather than a liability. Luckily, there are a number of plants that are nearly as ravishing in old age as in youth, and a garden that contains seedheads and the mellowing colors of plants past their prime is far the richer. Much trickier to accommodate are the many plants that blaze in glory then decline precipitously. These need to be carefully sited to take full advantage of their peak, while shielding their less-than-pretty descent.


Unless you’re out in the garden with clippers every day, destroying all evidence of death and decline, you probably don’t want the ugly faders in prominent spots. Constant trimming back results in boringly cute little bumps of plants. It is only as plants live out their yearly cycle that they take on character, height, and shape. Large plants that peak early on can be particularly troublesome. For example, the yellow, daisylike flowers and soft broad leaves of Inula magnified are magnificent in midsummer, and you might well be tempted to use it as a featured plant, up front and center. However, it quickly becomes less than elegant, for those large leaves wither, turn black, and hang on the sorrowful stalk, creating a carcasslike effect until the whole mess is cut down to the ground. At the back of the border, however, the inula can shine during its heyday, while its slow and messy decline is mercifully obscured by foreground plantings.

Another class of notoriously bad faders includes white-flowered plants such as jasmines and pale roses. Many white flowers turn brown as they age, dangling limply on the plant like soiled handkerchiefs. But because white flowers are so lovely in their prime, we put up with this fault. To mitigate this messy tendency, a jasmine can be threaded with another kind of vine with good foliage or a later bloom period, while white roses can be surrounded with plenty of colorful perennials to distract from their less attractive stages.

Hardy fuchsias have a great many virtues (a long bloom period, drought tolerance), but they’re nothing but a pile of dead sticks once frost hits them, and you need to leave their above-ground parts intact until April to protect them from winter cold. Again, the solution is careful siting—be sure and tuck them into a part of the garden where you won’t have to look at them from November until mid-spring. And what about sweet peas? Nothing is more appealing in flower, or looks more pathetic afterward, when the ratty pods hang limply on the mildewed vines. Not a pretty picture. Nor are poppies, whose luscious bloom is quickly followed by ugly withering. And I’ve never seen a plant go from beautiful to gross as quickly as a bearded iris. Think long and hard before placing any of these favorites in the front of the border.


In contrast to those plants that quickly turn into an eyesore, there are plenty of flowers for front-of-the-border spots that perform so well in all stages of life that they could be the poster kids for seasonal change. Double Lenten roses (selections of Helleborus xhybridus), for example, are nearly as charming in May when they go over as in winter when they first began to bloom. After their early color begins to fade, their flowers look like little green roses, for the inner sepals persist far into the summer months. The ruby button flowers of Knautia macedonica are as pretty after they’ve bloomed as when in bud, as are the glossily dark, scented flowers of chocolate cosmos (C. atrosanguineus). Hydrangea blossoms are more interesting as the weather cools and they take on tinges of mauve, plum, and bronze. The tall sedums like’Matrona and ‘Munstead Red’ change from pink or red to bronze over many months, and Stipa gigantea‘s tall, corn-colored flower spikes grace the garden from June through late winter.

While flower color may fade with age, texture endures. The heads of all the large-flowered alliums can be left to dry in the garden, where they lend a strong presence and intriguing spikiness long after their color bleaches from purple or lavender to buff. Ruffed and lacy love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) grows easily from seed, and dries right on its stem, fading from shades of purple blue to ghostly silver, as do the taller sea hollies, such as the biennial Eryngium giganteum and perennial E. alpinum. The flower wands of lavender provide long-lasting color as well as fragrance, and if summer weather is reasonably dry, the flowering tiers of Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa) dry on the plant, fading slowly from warm yellow to soft beige. Yarrows (Achillea spp.) alone could keep the garden in flower over many months, with fine, felty foliage and wide flower heads that retain their height and character, even as their colors fade over many months of bloom.

Until every catalog is required to picture a plant in decline as well as in its prime, much of what we learn about how a plant looks throughout its life cycle will depend on trial and error. For even when we have an idea of how a species might progress through the season, factors such as soil, moisture, heat, and maturity also affect how well an individual plant holds up. Showcasing a plant in youth, making the most of it as it ages, and accepting its inevitable decline are yet further welcome reasons to experiment with new plants, and move old ones about. H

For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 76.

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