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White for Fall


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They used to say you’re not supposed to wear white shoes after the first of September but in the garden, white is the great new fall color, and at my house it’s absolutely au courant.

Almost overnight, the sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora) that my neighbor planted on her side of the fence (but which has decided it likes my side better) burst into bloom. A few flowers arrived on the first of September, and a thrilling foamy white cascade of blossoms just one day later.

I first noted a few clematis flowers last year and wondered where they’d come from. Had seed blown in? Had birds “planted” them? So I emailed my neighbor to find out. Yes, they were her plants but why they decided they like my side of the fence better is a mystery. Clematis terniflora likes shade and there’s shade on both sides of the fence. In any case, these are fast movers, and by this fall they had totally filled in the space between them. All fine by me.

Sweet autumn clematis, from east Asia, is easily confused with the native virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana). Look at the leaves to distinguish which is which. The sweet autumn clematis leaves are smooth edged while those of virgin’s bower are dentate (notched, suggestive of teeth). Some people will warn you off both plants because they can be invasive. Pruning down to the ground in spring will help with control.

Also confusing are the various scientific names for sweet autumn clematis that you may find when you go shopping. Thecorrect name is C. terniflora, according to the Missouri Botanic Garden, not C. maximowicziana, C. paniculata and C. dioscoreifolia. In fact, C. paniculata is a separate species native to New Zealand.

The other autumn white now blooming in my garden is seven son flower (Heptacodium miconioides) — actually a 15- to 25-foot tree. It started opening a couple days after I first noted the blossoms on the clematis. Its flowers are tiny multi-petaled clusters while the clematis flowers are 4-petaled singles. Seven son flower starts blooming in September but then returns for what some gardeners call a second bloom as its calyces turn salmon-pink. (A calyx is the ring of little leaves that encase a flower bud.) This tree is very cold hardy. The Chicago Botanic Garden reports it has survived at minus 30 F. Bees seem to like it, which is another good reason to put it in your garden if you can.

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