Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fall Color – in unexpected places

At this time of year you can browse just about any gardening magazine or blog and be treated to a veritable smorgasbord of luscious fall plantings. From a humble perennial garden where the thrill of watching a hosta turn gold is reason enough to grab a camera to breathtaking vistas that stretch as far as the eye like a carefully woven tapestry. All are cause for celebration and appreciation.

I visited Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle for the first time just a few days ago. We’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for almost 16 years and thought I had discovered all the major gardening highlights. Yet this visit made it abundantly clear that I was very much mistaken.

Photo credit;
The conservatory was designed by the Olmsted brothers and is modeled on Crystal Palace in London. With its classic white Victorian architecture I almost expected to see crinoline-clad ladies with parasols strolling leisurely inside. In fact, this being Seattle, it was more fleece and Gore-Tex, but the strolling was at least the same as we all wanted to savor the treasures within.

Collections of exotic ferns, orchids and tropical plants were magnificent, but also what I expected to find within the steamy interior. What was a total surprise was the ‘color house’ with its magnificent display of chrysanthemums, coleus, sweet potato vines and grasses blasting out fall color in brazen waves. The effect was of one continuous container garden on steroids – and then some. Distinct color themes of dusky purples and honey tones, and vibrant pumpkin teamed with citrus shades were intertwined with a sprinkling of rich burgundy transforming this glass house into a fall rainbow.

As a designer who loves to work with color I was excited to be excited! Countless combination possibilities surrounded me and had me being thankful that I used a digital camera – with plenty of memory cards! These ideas will be a wonderful inspirational springboard for next year. 
Such mature plantings also helped me to see the potential in some varieties of coleus which I had dismissed as seeming too dull June. The foliage of ‘Moonglow’ opposite is a muted mustard color and a perfect example of a coleus which I passed up in favor of bolder shades. Each perfectly scalloped leaf is brushed with raspberry, a color which is repeated on the undersides. This display showed me that in fact it is a perfect partner to other antique shades and has really come into its own in fall when paired with the warm shades of chrysanthemums and contrast added by the darker purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’) and Cordyline.

Thankfully I photographed the tag. This is
Mammilaria elongata 'Irish red'. Looks like lots of
wiggly worms to me!
Almost ready to leave we entered the final section of the conservatory – the succulent house, home to dozens of cacti and succulents from fat barrel cactus to tall Opuntia which grows so quickly they have to be trimmed annually just to keep them inside! Here was my final surprise – cacti in fall color! I‘m no expert on cacti – or indoor plants of any kind. I kill them before I even get them home. Yet here were green ones, blue ones, spotted ones and speckled ones. However, I have never seen a fiery red one before - and I found two! In fact one looked like an overstuffed  Woolly Bear caterpillar, ubiquitous in the garden at this time of year with its fuzzy black and umber banded body.

The 'Woolly Bear' cactus would be a much easier name
than Mammilaria rhodantha ssp. fera-rubra
Cactus or creature?? The REAL
Woolly Bear caterpillar

So while this is yet another article on the colors of fall I hope you enjoy this little excursion away from Japanese maples and dogwood trees. I love them as much as the next person. 

But I also love to be surprised.


  1. Gorgeous photos of some wonderful plant combinations! I have never had cactus, as it lives on a different planet from me, but the wiggly worms and wooly bear are very interesting. I would be tempted to pet them, but I bet I would quickly regret that! Birmingham Botanical Gardens has a large glass conservatory filled with exotics and has a section devoted to cactus and other desert plants. It is fun to visit.

  2. Thanks Deb. Inspiration for me too! It's always fun to see something new.

  3. How wonderful to find such a great source of inspiration! Such beautiful architecture, too. The conservatories at the Albuquerque and Denver botanical gardens are more I. M. Pei-style--which is also wonderful, of course (and maybe goes a little better with fleece and Gore-tex...). I've just begun to "discover" cacti and be really amazed at their variety and quirkiness.

  4. I agree Stacy - those cacti are fascinating - but can only be enjoyed in homes and conservatories over here.

  5. What an inviting looking conservatory, and gorgeous planting inside. The colour scheme of the planting is warm and superb.

  6. They do such a great job! I hope they continue to get support to maintain their wonderful displays


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