Late summer has its garden stars
When I was wilting in the 95-degree heat, it was interesting to see which plants loved it. Abelia 'Edward Goucher' seemed to revel in it - pink flowers shining at the tips of the arching branches. 'Grace' smoke tree glowed as strong sunlight poured through the translucent burgundy leaves, illuminating them like stained glass.
Best of all, my 'Desert King' fig tree ripened quickly - by the third week of August the tree was heavy with luscious fruit, ready to be plucked. Green on the outside, they turn yellower when ripe, with pinkish-red interiors, and taste like honey.
Variegated boxwoods stood strong - their small waxy leaves are probably the key to heat tolerance. So did all kinds of conifers growing in big containers - 'Golden Ghost' and weeping white pines, dark 'Black Dragon' and gold 'Sekkan-Sugi' Japanese incense cedars, blue-green Spanish fir (Abies pinsapo) and silver-tinted 'Horstmann's Silberlocke' fir. From now on, I'll stick with plants that can take rainy winters with some extreme cold dips, as well as hot, dry summers. No more fusspots for me!
Rose-of-Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) is becoming another favorite for late summer color as well as heat and cold tolerance. One September on an English garden tour, I admired the Autumn Garden at Newby Hall, where a garden room bigger than most of our home gardens was filled with fall color. Amid masses of asters, salvias, sedums and other late bloomers bursting with flowers, several 'Bluebird' rose-of-sharons, trained as small trees, radiated soothing blue-violet tints. While each individual plant made a focal point, repeated placement in every bed pulled the whole garden together.
Because they bloom on this year's wood, you can prune Rose-of-Sharon all you like without losing any flowers. I've seen them left alone as shrubs, headed up as trees, and even clipped into hedges. My favorite is 'Helene' - her big white flowers are punctuated by riveting red centers.
Even though I've raved about chaste tree (Vitex) before, I can't help praising it again. It has lustrous gray-green foliage and countless lavender flower spikes that bloom in August into fall. You can grow it as a small tree or a large shrub; just make sure to give it a good 10 feet to spread wide and enough head room to rise up equally tall. The branches are sturdy enough for 'Betty Corning' clematis to scramble through, adorning the shrub with a garland of blue bells all summer long.
Visitors make my day
Late summer is when I most appreciate the many insect and bird visitors to the garden. One hot afternoon I heard a high pitched 'zeee' coming from the redtwig dogwoods and looked up to see a flock of cedar waxwings feasting on the berries. I love their charming crested crown feathers.
Hummingbirds are so at home in my garden that they often hover in midair right near my head. I like to think they are communing with me. This summer they've gone for the red tubular flowers of crocosmia, fuchsia and cape fuchsia (Phygelius). Much to my surprise, they've even poked their beaks into white hosta flowers, especially fragrant ones.
Single dahlias are often alive with big bumble bees that visit their wide open flowers with easily accessible stamens. This summer, 'Junkyard Dog,' a huge red single with white accents and a bright yellow center, as well as yellow 'Bishop of Oxford,' with dark leaves, and aptly named 'Bumble Rumble' dahlias, have all been humming with bees.
Butterflies are a special treat, so graceful and ephemeral, especially the big yellow swallowtails with their intricate blue markings. Landing on phlox flowers, then flitting to coneflowers, they sample each, then move on. As they float and drift through the garden, dancing in front of my office window even as I write this, they invite me to remember the garden's magic and the great interdependent web of life. Insects and birds feed on nectar while pollinating the flowers.
When dragonflies with transparent wings make their appearance, they take me back to my childhood when we lived near a swamp in Flushing, N.Y. The wild area filled with brown cattails and gleaming clusters of wild purple pokeberry would be alive with dragonflies in late summer. An old abandoned house at the edges of the swamp, that we were sure was haunted, added to the thrill of visiting the swamp.
Memories of those gauzy-winged dragonflies, the purple pokeberry and the scary decrepit house take me right back to being 8 years old when every sense door was wide open.
• Hardy Plant Society of Oregon Plant Sale and Garden Festival, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sept. 18 and 19. More than 85 plant and art vendors, book sales, garden experts on site to help you. Portland Expo Center, 2060 N. Marine Drive, Portland. Event free, parking $8, carpools of three or more, $7. For more information, call 503-224-5718 or visit www.hardyplantsociety.org .