The first frost date has receded in recent autumns in the Midwest, gradually giving gardeners a few more weeks to savor the ornamental remnants of a successful growing season and enjoy fall flowers and extended foliar displays. I have a cohort of favorites, including a few that deserve wide recognition.
1 Afterburner black gum (Nyssa sylvatica ‘David Odom’) For many years, I’ve championed black gums as resilient and beautiful trees for modern landscapes. ‘David Odom’ is a recent introduction gaining renown for its beautifully symmetrical habit and radiant autumn color. The leaves shine unblemished through summer only to glow with increasing saturation as the days shorten.
2 Eastern bee balm (Monarda bradburiana) What’s not to love about a pollinator magnet that blooms early in the growing season, bears a rich robe of purple fall color, and has attractive seed heads long into winter? This Ozarks native has become a mainstream and fashionable selection for herbaceous gardens, is a fetching companion to many ornamental grasses, and is surprisingly versatile—it’s as at home in a mixed border as it is in a strip alongside a street.
3 Cordoba moorgrass (Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Cordoba’) I love bold, architectural plants, particularly grasses such as Cordoba moorgrass with statuesque habits that serve as a scaffold of winter interest. Cordoba doesn’t reseed, nor does it run, instead forming a soldierly clump that rockets to its summer apex with gracefully arching seed heads by August. By Thanksgiving, its color glows in warm melon-orange tones, a delightful surprise in a landscape already headlong into bleaker days. Usually topping 7 feet, the stems withstand snow and ice, often still upright the following spring. Kelly Norris is the director of horticulture at the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden and the author of Plants with Style (Timber Press; 2015).
Eastern bee balm