Seed heads are the stars. They are far more than just faded flowers: With the summer's splashy colors gone, we can notice their tones of brown and copper, black and pewter, the shadows they cast, the way they move in the wind.
Some perennials and grasses will keep their interest until the old stalks need to go to make way for emerging spring shoots. Others may be lovely in fall but their looks don't last. Cutting back perennials that have become unattractive is a light gardening task for a sunny winter day.
One of the best places to learn to appreciate the sculptural quality of dried plants is the Lurie Garden in Chicago's Millennium Park. The perennial planting was designed by Piet Oudolf CQfor four-season interest, which is one reason that grasses, which dry so beautifully and move so eloquently, play such a big role. Plants were chosen not just for their summer foliage and bloom but for the shadows they cast and how well they catch a snowfall.
The garden's perennials are generally left alone when they go dormant at the end of the growing season, says Jennifer Davit, director and head horticulturist. A few may be cut back if they get beat up over the winter, but most stand until they are mowed down with mulching mowers in about February.
Not everyone has space for a grand expanse of intricately combined grasses and dried flowers and foliage. But every gardener can remember, when choosing plants in spring, the shapes and textures they may bring to the winter garden.
Davit named a few plants whose seed heads are especially attractive. Learn more about them at luriegarden.org.
Allium 'Summer Beauty':CQ The ball-shaped blooms of this ornamental onion last beautifully after they dry on sturdy golden stems. Davit remembers this plant the day after the big blizzard of February 2011: "The seed heads were still standing," she says, "and the shadows against the snow were fabulous." In summer, this drought-tolerant, resilient plant's flower clusters are pale lavender.
'Purple Lance' Chinese astilbe (Astilbe chinensis var. taquetii 'Purpurlanze')cq: The upright flower heads of this shade-tolerant perennial dry to a golden brown and stand upright for months, Davit says. Chinese astilbe, which typically has lavender flowers, is a lower-growing species that can spread into a dense groundcover with ferny leaves.
Coneflower (Echinacea):CQ Tall black stalks topped with spiny muffin tops command attention against the background of dried golden grasses, and become winsome when topped with fluffs of snow. A genus of Midwestern natives, Echinacea got its name from its seed heads' resemblance to prickly sea anemones, although porcupines also come to mind. The seeds that nestle between the spines are greedily devoured by goldfinches and other birds. Among the kinds of echinacea found in the garden are purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Tennessee coneflower (Echinacea tennesseensis) and several hybrids and selections. All have daisylike summer flowers in shades of purple and pink.
Eulalia grass (Miscanthus sinensis):CQ The airy, feathery, silvery tassels that dry from the flowers of this tall grass are its prime attraction. "Those will persist through the winter and be really beautiful," Davit says.
Hoary skullcap (Scutellaria incana):CQ When its summer flowers dry, they become clusters of little discs that rattle entertainingly with tiny seeds. In summer, the blooms of this southern Illinois native and bee and butterfly magnet are periwinkle blue.
Northern seat oats (Chasmanthium latifolium):CQ A row of flat ovals dangle like charms from an arching stem, tossed by every breeze. "That's nice because it's sort of a different texture," Davit says. "You can really see the movement." The seed heads are green when they form in late summer and dry to pale gold.
Phlomis tuberosa 'Amazone':CQ Brown dried flowers are strung along the stalks like beads on a necklace. The stalks of this plant from Ukraine will stand tall if it stays cold but may flop if the weather is mild and wet. In summer, the fluffs of bloom are pi