In Wisconsin, we’re definitely blessed to have four distinct seasons, and everyone has their favorite for any number of reasons. Like winter? Perhaps you ski, snowboard, ice fish, or just love the white snow blanketing everything. Can’t wait for spring? I understand—flowers start popping up, the birds are singing again, and everything is fresh and renewed. Do you savor the summer? Watersports, festivals, farmers’ markets, and long days that seem to last forever—it’s pretty great! But ask gardeners what their favorite season is and the likely answer will be fall.
For some, fall may be a season of degeneration. The leaves drop from the trees, flowers start to wane, and there’s a chill in the air that means winter is on the horizon. Fall is my favorite season because no other season comes close to having the beauty—the sights, smells, and sounds—as fall at a botanical garden. It’s Mother Nature’s last hurrah, and the party is in full swing at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.
A short walk through the outdoor gardens is all it takes to join in the experience. See the colorful leaves covering the ground like confetti; listen to the wind rush through tall grasses like the roar of a crowd at a Friday night football game; and notice the details that were elusive all summer, like the crimson berries decorating the crabapple trees, providing a veritable feast for our feathered friends. While there are many plants that contribute to the overall majesty of the fall season, these plants are head turners!
For ornamental grasses, fall is when they really show off. Though growing throughout the spring and summer, they aren’t as noticeable then. In fact, it’s easy to walk past a cluster or even an entire garden of ornamental grasses and barely notice their presence. But in fall, they come to life.
From short-statured Japanese blood grass to native prairie dropseed grass to towering Miscanthus reaching toward the sky, ornamental grasses can be found throughout the gardens. It’s refreshing to stop and spend a moment listening to the soundscape they provide as the stalks blow in the wind, their seed heads swaying back and forth. They remind us that there’s more to appreciate in a garden than just the view if we only stop and use our other senses to enhance the experience.
Ornamental grasses can be left standing throughout the winter, giving some contrasting shape and color to an otherwise mostly monochromatic landscape. They also provide shelter and food for birds who remain here during the cold months.
This is not the type of anemone that lives at the bottom of the ocean. These anemone plants add a wispy, delicate touch of color to a fall landscape and offer an alternative to the typical fall-blooming asters and chrysanthemums. It’s always a pleasant surprise to come across a patch of these beauties with dappled sunlight shining on them. Find some anemone plants and it’s likely that there will be many busy bees collecting pollen before going into torpor during the winter. In fact, in 2014 a rusty patched bumble bee was first spotted at Olbrich on an anemone flower. Native to Wisconsin and once prolific, the rusty patched bumble bee was the first bee in the continental United States to be added to the endangered species list, in 2017. Each year, increasing numbers of the rusty patched bumble bee are seen in the Gardens and other places around Madison, such as the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum.
If the fall season is a party, goldenrod, with its vibrant yellow flower spikes, is the one that keeps it hopping. “People don’t always appreciate goldenrod when it’s growing along the road, but to me, it’s the quintessential fall plant,” says Jeff Epping, director of horticulture at Olbrich Botanical Gardens. It gets a bad reputation because of the old wives’ tale that goldenrod causes seasonal allergies. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t. Goldenrod actually produces a sticky pollen meant to adhere to insects, not fly through the air like ragweed pollen.
Some of the most striking plants in a fall garden are Japanese maples. These trees can be stunning in the spring as their new leaves unfurl to reveal chartreuse, bright green, or deep burgundy foliage, but are absolute showstoppers in the fall. Depending on the weather conditions, Japanese maple leaves can display a prolonged show of color, lasting a few weeks given optimal temperatures. Backlit with sunshine, the leaves seem to glow, their hot yellow, orange, and red colors igniting the garden like fire.
A spring-blooming beauty, crabapple trees throughout the gardens offer a different kind of prolific display in the fall than their effervescent springtime flowers. Thousands of tiny ruby-hued apples (a crabapple is a type of apple tree after all) dot each branch and take center stage from late fall, through winter, and into early spring. While the fruits themselves may not be too captivating at first glance, look closer to see cedar waxwings, cardinals, and other birds feasting on the nutritious berries. Come spring, robins will eat their fair share of them as they wait for the snow to melt enough to search for worms.
An unexpected sight at Olbrich during spring, summer, and fall is the variety of edible plants dotted throughout the landscape and in many of the 500 container gardens outside. Kale, cabbage, and Swiss chard are all used to add textural and colorful dimensions to garden and container designs. Pop some dark-purple kale into container gardens for added fall interest, and it’s possible to literally have your kale and eat it too!
This year, we hope you can experience fall’s splendor in your own garden and also at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, where we’ll provide the flowers, leafy decorations, soothing sounds of grasses in the wind, and interesting eats (seriously though, please don’t eat any of our plants). Consider this your invitation.
Katy Plantenberg is the public relations & marketing manager at Olbrich Botanical Gardens.