Welcome, Autumn!

‘October Skies’

Autumn in the southeastern Piedmont is generally a gorgeous season. Summer humidity vanishes, creating deep azure skies that serve to highlight the changing colors of leaves of oaks, maples, hickories, tulip poplars, sweet gums, black gums, and sourwoods — those are some of our more colorful autumn native trees most years.

However, on this first day of Autumn, 2011, soft rain patters on the roof as I type. So much rain is predicted, in fact, that my area is under a Flash Flood Watch. However, the heavy rains have not materialized. I’m not complaining. My five acres got an inch-plus downpour a couple of days ago. This served to soften drought-hardened ground enough to absorb the current light rain, pulling water down to thirsty roots.

This weather is certainly not what I think of as typical for fall, but after the heat and drought of our summer, I gratefully accept every drop the sky cares to offer. I hope that today’s wet equinox signals a shift in regional rain patterns. A wet fall and winter would suit me and my green friends just fine.

It’s too early around here for fall leaf color anyway. The only trees displaying any color are the sourwoods. They start showing off crimson leaves by the middle of August. They’re lovely — in fact they are one of my favorite native understory trees. But their color tends to get swallowed up by all the late summer greenness of the vegetation surrounding them.

Very early autumn color in my Piedmont yard is provided by fall-blooming flowers. Myriad yellow composites — Rudbeckias, Helianthus, Coreopsis, etc. — lighten every corner with their sunny blooms. Goldenrods glow next to allergy-inducing ragweeds. And my Aromatic Asters begin their prolonged fall blooming period.

Even during drought years, my Aromatic Asters bloom for six weeks. This year, they are already covered so densely with inch-wide flowers that you can barely see the foliage.

The botanists have changed the scientific name to Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies,’ but you’ll still find it in plenty of catalogs as Aster oblongifolium ‘October Skies.’ The cultivar name is the key, aptly describing the color of the petals – a deep blue-lavender that echoes the cloudless skies we relish in our region this time of year.

The catalogs call this aster low-growing. But what it lacks in height (mine usually stay around 2 feet), it makes up for in spread. In my beds, its reach seems limited only by how far I’m willing to let it creep, but its spread is described as being between 1-3 feet.

It’s called Aromatic Aster because of the spicy sweet fragrance of the leaves, reminding me of the old-fashioned chrysanthemums of childhood gardens. Not only do the leaves smell wonderful when crushed, the oils in the leaves also protect the plants from deer predation.

Honeybees and other pollinators love this late bloomer too, making the spicy blue mound hum from dawn to dusk. I like to sit on my front deck on cool autumn afternoons listening to the soothing song of bees and inhaling the sweet spicy fragrance released by the lingering heat of the setting sun.

But that won’t happen today. Today I am snug inside my house as soft rains usher in the new season, quieting birds and bees, signaling a transition from summer’s frenzied pace to winter’s colder contemplations.

Happy Autumnal Equinox, everyone.

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