Herbaceous plants rarely if ever feature on those “spectacular autumn colour” lists, which is understandable. Compared to mature trees or whole hillsides in their autumn glory, they must appear decidedly unspectacular to the horticultural world. Apart from those very humble members of the horticultural world who have to be content with very small mercies indeed.
Some of these little herbaceous mercies are indeed so small that they are best viewed or photographed from a reptilian position. Ajugas fall into this category. All are evergreen, but shed some of their old leaves in autumn. The foliage of Ajuga ‘Catlin’s Giant’ is a dark, almost blackish green, a wonderful contrast to its bright autumnal beetroot leaves. One of my favourites is the German A. reptans ‘Braunherz’ with neat rosettes of a glossy mahogany. The colour intensifies at this time of year as a touch of pink appears at ground level and all is enhanced by a few bright yellow ‘pennies’, courtesy of Spiraea japonica ‘Snowmound’ above.
Most hostas are capable of a spectacular, if somewhat messy, swansong before collapsing – at the first touch of frost – into something resembling a heap of very damp tissue paper. Few stand up to close autumnal scrutiny in this climate, but from a respectable distance they make a satisfying yellow splash.
Peltiphyllum peltatum is one of those plants that has some gardeners cooing with delight while others barely give it a second glance. It is variously known as Indian rhubarb, umbrella plant or water saxifrage, and forms an almost impenetrable carpet of hard, overlapping rhizomes that sit on the soil surface. The glossy, rounded leaves, carried on metre tall stems, appear after the pink spring flowers and take on pleasing autumn tints in November. It likes damp soil and will happily grow in a peat bog.
Cornus canadensis is a herbaceous member of the dogwood family and little-known in Shetland gardens, despite its liking for damp, peaty places. In my garden it creeps slowly along the northern edge of the peat garden, forming a dense, green cushion. It charms in late spring when every whorl of leaves is tipped with four pale green bracts that expand and gradually change to white as the tiny central flowers, tipped with blue stamens, open.
In autumn, as the foliar chlorophyll is gradually absorbed back into the roots, the leaves take on spectacular sealing wax tints.
Deciduous euphorbias are fabulous autumn performers. Stately Euphorbia palustris becomes a ‘burning bush’ of delicate pinks and oranges, while the tiny, needle-thin leaves of the ground-covering E. cyparissias flare into a satisfying yellow before dropping.
Some geraniums can be relied upon to provide a chromatic flurry and scented-leaved Geranium macrorrhizum is always amongst them. A nameless, beefy crane’s bill takes up a lot of space on the lime bed and fails to earn its keep with a brief display of mauve flowers in June, but sparkles in the autumn with ravishing flamingo stems and fiery foliar colour.
I wish I could persuade a pair of ravens to nest at Lea Gardens. They started paying brief visits a half decade ago or so. They come in pairs or small groups and impress with their aerial acrobatics. My friend, the late Gunni Moberg, used to coax and tame them with chunks of “aromatic” meat. I never seem to have any handy at the right time, but was treated to something quite extraordinary while photographing ajugas on the Temple Terrace the other day. A raven hovered a few feet above my head, rose high up into the sky, then turned on its back, folded its wings and – head first – plummeted dangerously before spreading its wings again. This was repeated several times while it called to me with throaty cries. I returned the calls then rushed into the house in search of aromatic meat, but found none.
I later realised that I was mistaken. This wasn’t an overture for a human-corvine friendship, but a telling-off. The raven had said: “Get lost so I can swoop down on the half-eaten mouse your cats have left lying around.”