Autumn Arrangements Of Flowers And Greenery

About this time of the year, there may be less colour in the garden. One feels that as autumn closes in with shorter evenings and early frosts in comparison with the wealth of summer, the flower border will soon have little to offer. And then, perhaps, there comes a St. Luke’s summer, bringing more sunny days which ‘set budding more, and still more later flowers for the bees’. Fortunately (although Keats did not mention it) there are later flowers not only for the bees, but also for the imaginative flower arranger.

What beauty such days can give to the garden, with colours turning and the air either crisp with frost or warm and drowsy with the late summer sun. And there is almost a double flowering season—the true autumn flowers, such as dahlias, chrysanthemums, Michaelmas daisies, monbretia, and so on, and at the same time still more buds from the summer flowers, fooled, perhaps, by the sunshine, like the bees: roses, delphiniums, mignonette, masterwort (Astrantia), Japanese anemones, foxgloves, myrtle and Californian lilac (Ceanothus).

As is well known, some of these only come on again if the dead flower spikes have been cut off at their early flowering. This applies especially to foxgloves, delphiniums and masterwort (Astrantia).Autumn Arrangements Of Flowers And Greenery

I am writing generally of gardens in Britain and Maine (where I holiday in summer), but as far south as the Channel Islands I have seen a still greater variety of summer flowers and half hardy shrubs out at this time of the year. Indian mallow (Abutilon), coleus in flower, feverfew, godetia, cornflowers, love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus), cross vine (Bignonia), thorn apple (Datura stramomium), pepper bush (Piper) and cup and saucer plant (Cabaea scandens), were some of the plants still producing material for flower arrangement at this comparatively late time of the year.

I also saw Californian poppies (Eschscholzia) Kaffir lilies, blue salvia and some sprays of laurustinus. This was in a sheltered garden in St. Martin’s, Guernsey, but it is highly probable that the same might be found in Somerset or Cornwall.

At this time of year there is a wealth of foliage suitable for arrangements in the house. Besides the wonderful colouring of azalea and peony leaves, not to mention many of the flowering shrubs, especially berberis, there are also the magnificent leaves of the globe artichoke. Hydrangea and begonia are two other reliable assets of the garden. Plantain lily (Hosta) is still available, as are, of course, garden ragwort (Senecio laxifolius), sea lavender (Santolina) and rosemary.

Yet another autumn delight is to have a small arrangement of massed colour which might be described as ‘clashing’ except that it is intentional. Two or three polyantha roses perhaps of Moulin Rouge and Aurora, with a variety of geraniums (pelargoniums) in pink, crimson and scarlet, arranged quite short on a pin holder, make a good contrast on a green dish or plate for a dining table, with the geranium leaves cut almost without any stalk to conceal the holder. This ‘clashing’ red colour scheme (with the addition of zinnias and dahlias) is equally effective for a larger arrangement in a white porcelain vase.

Now too, we should, perhaps, concentrate on leaves and berries. The berberis family provides the greatest variety of berries in tones of pale green, orange, pink and yellow. The colours are almost breath-taking in the effects they produce. There is, however, one obvious drawback to using berberis for flower arrangement: the copious prickles which decorate the branches. They are surely the most deadly and the sharpest of all prickles!

The only answer seems to be to wear thick gloves and have sharp secateurs for cutting. Most of the thorns must be removed before arranging and the branches at the base of the stem either crushed or split. The colours of the berries make this extra trouble well worthwhile, but it is advisable to bear in mind that it all takes time. Because of the prickles it is sometimes difficult to use berberis with other foliage or flowers and for that reason it may be more successful alone.

Cotoneaster provides bright scarlet berries without the difficulty of prickles and with the added attraction of dark green leaves: also available at this time are skimmia, which produces good clusters of scarlet berries later, and the orange tinted rowan berries.

When arranging branches of berries it is helpful to have a container with a narrow enough neck to support them without the additional props of wire netting or pin holders. This is especially true of berberis, which is usually curving and slightly top heavy. Often the chief contrast comes from the colour of the berries against the colour or texture of the vase.

Foliage is, of course, invaluable at this time of the year and a background of evergreen is often the means of showing up a small number of flowers. Portugal laurel with a few pink chrysanthemums, or camellia foliage with two or three flowers to the front (these can be changed to make a new group as the leaves will last for some weeks) are two of the many possible suggestions.

Horse chestnut, dramatic in size, shape and colouring, is especially beautiful when the leaves are turning to yellow but still have some of the fresh green in them. (There is one point to remember: the leaves must be cut some time before they are ready to drop.) The Spanish chestnut, especially valuable with its almost sculptural serrated leaves, also provides an interesting shape. In complete contrast is the silver birch—slender branches with numbers of small dancing leaves usually all one colour not unlike raw sienna. They give a charming lightness of touch where the horse chestnut and Spanish chestnut provide solidity and sturdiness and a definite outline.

Then there is beech, which is popular on account of its reliability when treated with glycerine. It is useful and produces a wonderful variety of colour if cut well before it is ready to fall. Similar to beech in many ways, but more angular in growth and turning from clear yellow and burnt sienna to a magnificent flame, is Persian iron wood (Parrotia persica). (This also reacts well to the glycerine treatment, turning a deep chocolate brown and lasts from one year to another.) Quite a different leaf and colouring comes with the gingko tree. This has a most distinguished foliage—clear yellow and almost key shaped. The branches may be rather tough and knobbly and therefore sometimes difficult to arrange, but it is worth taking the extra trouble which may be necessary to manipulate them.

Copper beech and prunus come into a class of their own and are as valuable in the autumn as they are earlier on in the year. The same applies to golden privet, radiant like sunshine if used with discrimination and going on well into the winter. The cucumber tree (Magnolia acuminata) is another reliable tree for cutting in the autumn, although it does not indulge in vivid autumn colouring but remains cool and elegant in its usual soft olive green backed with chocolate—this is dramatic foliage on the same scale of grandeur as the horse chestnut.

Rhododendron foliage deserves a special mention. It is always available whatever the season, with large dark pointed leaves (arranged almost in a rosette) in the winter but with fresh green shoots in the spring which give a two tone effect against the older darker foliage. The rhododendron is one of the most valuable shrubs for any time of the year.

There is almost no limit to the size of a group which can be constructed on a basis of rhododendron foliage, since both the long tall branches or the graceful curving ones are equally available on full grown shrubs. Cut from the country, where they have been washed by frequent rain and are not encrusted with dust and grime from a town, the colour of these leaves is a good, rich, green, which combines well with most flowers and makes a splendid contrast with other foliage.

R. ponticum the purple flowered shrub seen growing wild in many areas of Britain, especially near the Dorset coast south of Puddletown and all over the Lake District, is a plant which has great value and yet has been much despised; the familiar sight of the quantities of purple flowers are now rather taken for granted. This may be due to the introduction of many new and rather rare varieties of rhododendrons in the last few years.

R. ponticum was brought to England as long ago as 1763, and is a shrub much valued by Miss Gertrude Jekyll in her book Wood and Garden. Writing of her own rhododendrons she comments on the variety and shapes of leaf the various species produce: ‘Now that the rhododendrons planted nine years ago have grown to a state and size of young maturity it is interesting to observe how much they vary in foliage, and how clearly the leaves show the relative degree of relationship to their original parents, the wild mountain plants of Asia Minor and the United States. These, being two of the hardiest kinds, were the ones first chosen by hybridisers, and to these kinds we owe nearly all of the large numbers of beautiful garden rhododendrons now in cultivation. The ones related to the wild R. ponticum have long, narrow, shining leaves, while the varieties that incline more to the American R. catawbiense (from the Catawba Mountains in the south eastern United States where it grows on mountain summits as well as on mountain slopes) have leaves twice as broad, and almost rounded at the shoulder where they join the stalk; moreover, the leaf has a different texture, less polished, and showing a grain like Morocco leather.’

From rhododendrons one is led to think of flowering shrubs such as azalea and forsythia, both of which take on a richness of autumn colouring probabLy unequalled by any other shrub, with the possible exception of the smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria). Azalea is inclined to turn to deep purple tones of wine or flame, whilst forsythia sometimes varies from a rather clear yellow, streaked with maroon, to the more conventional darker reds and purples of autumn.

The smoke tree is dramatic indeed—with its feathery plumes and lobe shaped leaves in colours which almost defy description—seen in any quantity this shrub seems to be on fire.

Other leaves which turn well in the autimin are those of the tree peony (in addition to the beauty of the colouring there is also the most distinctive shape of the leaves) and Rosa hugonis. Both of these will sometimes take on colourings of deep plum during this season.

In addition there is other foliage which does not excel in autumn colouring, but which goes on well into November and provides reliable material for arrangement as well as interesting contrasts in shape and colour. First on the list is the blue-grey of the globe artichoke, a leaf of almost architectural beauty. Second comes the bright clear green of the hydrangea, solid and definite in outline, and then in complete contrast the dark, rather feathery green of summer jasmine, or the trailing stems of the evergreen honeysuckle (with lighter, slightly mottled green leaves) or the curving stems of periwinkle—either dark and shining, or variegated. Mention of variegated periwinkle reminds one of the dogwoods and also of the variegated spindle tree.

These variegated shrubs and plants are invaluable, acting as an important contrast in colouring to the reds, purples, russets, browns and copper colourings of many of the deciduous shrubs and trees. Usually in a mixed group of autumn colourings only a touch of something variegated is necessary to bring the whole arrangement to life. This may, of course, depend on the texture and shading of the material used, and if there is already a lighter tone of foliage, such as pale yellow privet, the variegated material may not be necessary at all.

Bergenia goes on bravely through the autumn and winter and there are still many of the grey foliaged plants available: garden ragwort, everlasting flower (Helichrysum), bells of Ireland (a definite fresh green), old man’s beard (Clematis), alliums (greenish white or mauve grey) and poppy seedheads (still blue green if they have been allowed to remain on the plants) and quantities of berries.

Then comes St. John’s Wort, (small or slender stems) cotoneaster, bright red on fan-like branches berberis of all kinds, viburnum, darker red and very long lasting.

Early autumn is the time of year for cutting branches of beech etc. if one wishes to press or treat them with glycerine and water. This method of preserving is a well known one. The usual proportions are three quarters of glycerine to a quarter of water, although I have known equal quantities to be sufficient in some cases. The branches should be cut whilst still green, and the bases of their stems crushed or split open, then they should stand in the glycerine mixture for about a fortnight to three weeks. (It is advisable to let them stand in a tall, narrow container, so that the liquid comes as far up the stems as possible).

At this stage some people arrange them in a jug or other suitable container and leave them throughout the winter as a decoration. However, when they seem to have absorbed as much liquid as they need they can be taken out and used with other material.

It is possible, of course, to experiment with various types of branches, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. I have found that the blue-grey of eucalyptus turns a lovely deep wine shade in glycerine, whereas dried off in the sun it sometimes turns a pale coffee colour. Either of these can be useful in a mixed group to provide contrasts of shape and colour. I have also experimented with branches of wild roses at the stage when the hips were bright and red but before the leaves had turned. These leaves, too, went a dark wine colour. Their small size and slightly serrated shape gave yet another note of interest amongst other leaves.

They lasted well in this condition and put away after one winter could be brought out again for the next.

The pressing of leaves can provide one with an even greater variety of material than perhaps the glycerine method. All types of foliage can be tried with such a simple method. The leaves should, of course, be in a good condition when they are laid flat between sheets of newspapers under a carpet, large rug, or any heavy, even weight, such as a pile of books or magazines. Spanish chestnut, ivy, Virginian creeper, garden ragwort, beech, bracken, silver birch are some of the materials which should be successful. For long lasting results, and to prevent any possibility of leaves curling up at the sides owing to too short a time under pressure, I would recommend that foliage should remain flat for at least a month.

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.