“September. Already.” We say it every year and there is some comfort in that annual surprise. But the 2016 version is pressing upon us. It is a month both of celebration and wistfulness: celebration to acknowledge the extravagance and bounty of summer, wistfulness because winter is promised after the festivities. Ancient Greeks would have told you the change in fortunes is because the goddess, Persephone, is returning to her husband in the Underworld for the next six months.
September is worth a look beyond the festivals and the promise of darker days though. For one thing it is the time of the autumnal equinox. On the 22nd the sun crosses the celestial equator, north to south. This is notable because the full, or harvest moon, of September is astronomically special; the time between one moon rising and the next becomes shorter than earlier in the year.
Happily, we have a lot to enjoy in September at the Gardens. In part we can thank the founder, Arthur Dunn, who loved the fall season that the month ushers in. In 1915 he insisted to the Olmsted Brothers, who designed the property that many of the plantings should be trees and shrubs native to his childhood home in upstate New York. He wanted to experience their autumnal blaze.
Now these trees are the grand old specimens of the landscape. The Acer saccharum or Sugar Maple seen early on a tour is one. It starts to glow when the days get shorter. Another, Fagus sylvatica or European Beech, of which we have several specimens, begins to give up its green in September for russet tones and a graceful winter outline.
Arthur’s son continued his father’s tradition of honoring the fall by planting trees that took on real color when their leaves changed. The Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’ Ed Dunn planted on the Great Lawn was considered one such tree when it was added last century. It does not shine as well as later cultivars but is of historic interest and so it remains.
On the ground is the hardy Asarum caudatum with a common name of Western Wild Ginger. It is treasured as a ground cover at the Dunn for its ability to remain gracious and green throughout the seasons, even through a hot summer. Another plant favored for its ability to remain stalwart in the fall is the Alaska Fern, Polystichum setiferum. These ferns happen to be a personal favorite. They appear to me to be showing off their twirling skirts in the fall when everything else around them is dying away.
For sheer autumnal bragging two plantings make the cut. The common name of the Vitis coignetiae says it all: Crimson Glory Vine. It is, to say it kindly, a vigorous grape planted at the corner of the Curator’s Cottage. It looks elegant enough when it leafs out in the spring but in the fall it deepens from yellow, to orange, to red, to purple. Sigh.
My personal overall favorite is Enkianthus. Enkianthus settle to a wallpaper green during the summer after producing red or white bell-like flowers in the spring. But in the fall the varieties of Enkianthus in the garden truly glow. Really shimmer with color. And unlike the Crimson Glory Vine require little to no pruning.
What more is there to be said? Not much. But lots to look forward to. Particularly a celebration October 23rd we call the Fall Foliage Festival. Can’t call ourselves a garden and not celebrate the bounty of the season.