Plants That Die Back Beautifully

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Back when herbaceous perennial plantings were the monopoly of the wealthy and luxuriantly post-employed, gardeners sheared everything in the autumn, leaving the garden clean and bare—and missing out on the beautiful death of many plants. 

At Chicago's Lurie Garden, the perennial planting was designed by Piet Oudolf to wither and winter gracefully. Pictured here in November.

At Chicago's Lurie Garden, the perennial planting was designed by Piet Oudolf to wither and winter gracefully. Pictured here in November.

Today, few gardeners rush out to give their gardens an autumn buzz cut. This laissez-faire attitude is often touted as more ecologically and culturally beneficial. Leaving the faded remnants of last year’s perennials preserves winter habitat for animals, birds and insects while protecting dormant plants’ tender crowns from the vagaries of winter cold and damp. 

Retaining the remains also allows for an entire array of visual effects. However, as any sensible gardener will realize, you can’t just plop in any combination of box-store impulse buys and expect them to look glorious throughout the year. It’s important to find plants that die as beautifully as they live.

Expert designers such as Piet Oudolf, James van Sweden, Wolfgang Oehme and Roy Diblik have created amazing public-garden plantings throughout the United States that celebrate the entire life cycle of plants. These gardens make four-season glory look natural and effortless—hiding the rigorous plant selection and careful maintenance required. To render similar winter beauty in your garden, look for plants that develop beautiful withered leaves and stems, dried flower heads, seedpods and fallen flower petals.

Withered Leaves and Stems

If you want long-term beauty in senescence, start with grasses. When I lived at the edge of the prairie, in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, winter would kindle the hills with the dried foliage of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) burning from its silvery summer gray to vibrant crimson and coral. The drier its growing conditions, the clearer and more saturated its fall coloring. Another great option is maiden grass (Miscanthus spp.). You may scoff at the single specimen beside your grandmother’s doorway, but planted in vast drifts or a great stand, maiden grass can be glorious, all buff and flecked with snow.

It’s not only grasses that have foliage that dies back in interesting ways. Scramble through prairie hills in winter and you’ll encounter clumps of strange, contorted leaves that look like a study for an abstract sculpture. These are the withered foliage of lance-leaf compass plant (Silphium laciniatum). In the summer the pinnate leaves arc out proudly, bright green fingers stretched open to the hot prairie sun. When the cold arrives, they clench back into themselves, forming strange near-black clumps. Another Silphium species, prairie dock (S. terebinthinaceum) has vast 2- to 3-foot-long paddle-shape leaves that are held stiffly upright to face the summer light. As winter passes, the leaves fade, then slowly break away until only the veins remain—skeletal reminders of their devotion to the sun.

Faded Flower Heads

Fading leaves pale in popularity next to dried flower heads. Ever since Constance Spry first pulled her faded hydrangeas from the compost heap, dried flowers have been a staple in glossy interior design magazines as well as dubious dried floral arrangements in hotel lobbies. For gardeners, there is a host of beautiful flowers that retain elegant and beautiful forms in the garden even after they’ve faded. 

Temperate-climate salvias, such as Salvia nemorosa and S. pratensis, are easy to grow. Their bracts offer strong winter texture and muted hues of purple and blue for months after the flowers have dropped away. Clary sage (S. sclarea) has particularly large bracts that fade to a stunning silvery gray as they age.

Fall-flowering perennial Allium cultivars, such as ‘Millenium’ and ‘Summer Beauty’, carry elegant pompom flower heads even through winter damp. The larger spring-blooming bulbous alliums, like the well-known ‘Globemaster’ and spidery A. schubertii, also have strong flower heads that continue to offer texture and structural interest for weeks after their color has faded. (Just don’t follow our old neighbors’ attempts and spray paint them red, white and blue for Independence Day.)

Seedpods

While some plants’ flower heads—particularly those with stiff papery bracts—retain their basic shape and form as the seeds ripen, other blossoms mature into seed heads with a completely different look. One such is the European native Clematis vitalba, commonly called old man’s beard. In some strains, the fluffy white seed heads are almost more dramatic than the flowers. Other heritage garden plants traditionally grown for their stunning seed heads include Siberian iris (Iris sibirica), with weird vase-shaped husks that open liplike tips to reveal black interior seeds; honesty (Lunaria annua), with translucent silver-dollar seeds; and sea hollies (Eryngium spp.), with spiky spherical seed balls.

Many prairie plants native to North America also offer intriguing or attractive seedpods. Consider those of milkweeds—some are boat-shaped, like common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), some twist like antelope horns (A. asperula) and others resemble strange prickly balloons (A. physocarpa). Other prairie plants with prominent seed heads include blue false indigo (Baptisia australis), which develops rattling black seed heads; Missouri evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa), with weird four-winged, lime-green seed bladders; and prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), which demonstrates its status as a member of the Ranunculaceae through its clematis-like wispy seed heads that follow small coral-red flowers in late spring.

Recommended reading:

Learn to tend the perennial garden in a largely hands-off way with Roy Diblik's The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden, which also includes essential plants for year-round beauty and recipe-like planting plans that are easily tailored to gardens of various sizes.

Explore Piet Oudolf's favored plants and design approaches in Gardens of the High Line, authored by Oudolf and Rick Darke. The garden is depicted in all four seasons, with its maintenance explained and advice offered for home gardeners and designers.

Image credit: Kimon Berlin/CC BY-SA 2.0