Late-blooming trees great for gardens
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:40 PM
By Linda Stephens-Urbaniak
Trees that bloom in late summer or early fall are far fewer than the many that bloom in spring, but a late-blooming tree will always create excitement in a garden.
Although not common, there are several that do exceptionally well on Mercer Island and in the surrounding area.
The most common of these uncommon trees is a genus with common names that give a clue to the beauty of either the flower or the scent. Clerodendrums are small trees or vigorous shrubs. They have large heart-shaped leaves and flowers that are followed by attractive calyxes that extend the ``flowering'' season. Clerodendrum bungei, called both cashmere bouquet and glory flower, originates in China and northern India. It grows slowly to about 10 feet and is covered in late summer with pink flowers that are beautifully scented. Children love to brush the leaves of this tree as the leaves smell like peanut butter. The bright pink calyxes last well into the fall. For a taller tree, clerodendrum trichotomum, the harlequin glorybower from Japan is even more spectacular. Bright pink calyxes that turn to dark red as the season progresses surround the white highly-scented flowers. For even more excitement, the red calyxes contain contrasting turquoise fruits as the flowers fade.
Clerodendrums prefer medium, well-drained soil in part-sun to sun. They require regular watering.
An unusual color for late summer graces the flowers of the chaste tree, Vitex angus-castus. The scented lavender-blue flowers look very similar to those of the lilac and cover the large shrub, or small multi-trunked tree. Even out of bloom, it is attractive with narrow green to gray-green leaves with downy gray undersides. The small purple fruit that remain on the tree for quite a while extends the season. The tree originated in southern Europe and is deciduous. It grows slowly to about 12 feet in our area, taller in warmer areas. Although it is usually hearty here, heavy frost or unusually low temperatures can cut it down. If this happens, don't despair; it may come back from the roots. Plant it in good soil in a sunny area and water moderately.
Plants are sometimes saved from extinction by chance. One that has had that chance is the Franklinia alatamaha, named in honor of Benjamin Franklin. First discovered in 1765 by the American botanist John Bartram close to the Alatamaha River in Georgia, this East Coast native was no longer to be found in the wild by 1800. This lower growing tree, to 25 feet, is worth searching for, but expensive when you find it. It blooms August through September with 3-inch white camellia-like flowers centered with yellow stamens. You will frequently find flowers in bloom as the bright green glossy leaves change into the bright reds and yellows of fall coloring. If the fall is unusually cold and wet, you will have to wait for another year for much of a flower display. Franklinias need lots of humus incorporated into rich, well-drained soil and do best in a sunny location. They need steady watering in the summer and don't tolerate drought or waterlogged roots.
A fall blooming tree can add excitement to your garden, and some of the best are ones that also add scent or additional leaf color. By incorporating one into your planting scheme, you can take your landscaping from the ordinary to the truly extraordinary.