Sunny, cool and colorful: it sounds like an advertisement for Autumn. If it’s a TV commercial, put George Winston’s “Colors,” the perfect autumn song, on the soundtrack and it’s hard to find a happier time and place to be on the planet than here and now.
I go out this morning, temperatures in low fifties this week, different days, real autumn. The trees have turned. They turn earlier this year, the anonymous tree with orange leaves in the back, the maple in the front, the half-turned mulberry in between them. Only the oak, always the last, holds out. Its big green, dark-tinged leaves shine against the immeasurable depths of the true blue autumn sky.
Plants like October. Those that are still going strong and those that only come into their own this month.
Not those that bloomed early, shot their bolt, and are fast fading. The May-blooming peonies are falling over, their stalks already sucked of life by the first few cold nights. Their still shapely leaves turns yellow and lie down flat on the brick walk, waiting for me to come by and cut them off.
Some plants that flowered in summer stand tall, holding up their leaves, though the flowers have browned, or blacked, gone to seed, fallen off, or simply turned gray like old wood or old men. The veins of nutrients that colored them have lost all connection to the life force. The stems lose their color and dry up like the old brush and branches fallen in the forest. They’ll nourish the next generation.
The bi-colored leaves on a tall phlox maintain a presence, the stalks still standing straight. The other tall phlox have all fallen prey to the white mildew that catches up to their species in fall. Nothing to do but take them down to the roots.
The flowers of the black-eyed susans are nothing but black eyes now, glowering in the end times where they once smiled in the sunshine; their pointy green leaves darkening, turning leathery, the stems thin and cramped. They seem to shrink into themselves as you watch.
But last-call October bloomers are going strong, some still arriving. The Montauk daisies, big round white heads around yellow centers beam up at us. And the “spotted toad lilies” endure all summer long to open their spotted, contorted, complicated blooms now. With dark “spots” on their light pink backgrounds, they have the intricate beauty of small, subtle things.
In combination with the turning trees and the various shades and stages of declining shrubs and perennials, the October bloomers focus our eyes on the season’s special palette and the year’s late vigor. It’s our own little Renaissance.