Favorite flowers of October grace the county

Submitted photo/Laetitia Sands
Canna lilies are among the most dramatic of the flowers that will bloom in our county until frost. They’re related to bananas and ginger.

Drifting along through this lovely season of fall, when the stifling heat and humidity of summer have faded to a memory and the biting cold of winter is barely a distant worry ahead, many colorful flowers still grace Dorchester’s gardens and countryside.
Even in the dark, early morning, when moonlight makes a silver path over the water in the cove by my house, one can see mounds of white on shore: Water bushes in bloom. Water bush is the local name for a shrub also called high tide bush, groundsel tree and sea myrtle. The plant’s feathery little flowers attract butterflies and small birds.
This time last year, 30 or 40 orange and black winged monarch butterflies landed on a water bush near my garden shed and stayed for hours, like medals pinned to a fluffy white chest.
What attracted so many to one particular bush? Were they, like us, flocking en masse to a restaurant frequented by friends and family instead of trying an almost empty eatery next door? Or did the marsh plant’s seemingly scentless flowers hold something delicious that only a butterfly or bird could appreciate?
Near the water bushes and also planted by Mother Nature, grow large patches of brilliant yellow goldenrod. Before you sneeze, please take on board the fact that ragweed, a noxious weed that flowers at this time of year as well, causes hay fever, not lovely goldenrod.
Years ago, I admired goldenrod growing four or five feet high in abandoned fields in fall. At least 10 types, varying from a foot to over six feet tall, are native to the Chesapeake Bay watershed. As I gazed at the cheerful expanse of vibrant yellow, I wished that someday goldenrod would grow in my yard. Mother Nature must have heard the wish because she granted it, in spades.
In several spots, mistflower, a plant with pale blue blossom, also of the fuzzy sort, grows at the feet of goldenrod. It forms a stunning contrast. No human gardener could have done better.
Mistflower, known also as wild ageratum, began its history in my backyard as 18-inch tall transplants from a butterfly garden that Dorchester’s master gardeners had created outside a local hospital. It was considered to have grown aggressively and taken up too much space. Master gardeners weeding there were invited to help themselves, so I did.
The little plant will, indeed, spread itself around with abandon. But it’s so pretty, particularly when paired with goldenrod, that I have no objection. And you might not, either. Like water bushes and goldenrod, the plant attracts butterflies and birds. Also beneficial insects.
Turning to what we consider garden flowers, marigolds are also stars of the season and worth planting in late spring or early summer for a colorful display from June through fall. There’s a particularly lovely arrangement of red and bronze marigolds, interspersed with pale green and white, variegated grass, planted in borders around a house on Locust Street, in Cambridge.
The little bedding plants, one of the most easily grown and popular annuals, are French marigolds, whose botanical name is tagetes. They flower in yellow, orange and red, and their leaves give off a strong scent when pinched, similar to chrysanthemums. You can find French marigolds at every big box store and nursery in spring and summer. They bloom until frost and produce better and more flowers when growing in poor soil, according to one of my sources.
But look for marigolds in a plant encyclopedia and you’ll find a different, although equally pretty, flower bearing the same name. This marigold, also known as calendula, pot marigold or English marigold, goes by the botanical name calendula officinalis. About 20 species exist, ranging from annuals to evergreen perennials.
Calendula have much larger heads, flatter petals and paler green leaves than do French marigolds. The leaves have a completely different shape. Their yellows and oranges look brighter and purer than the colors of French marigolds, to my mind. They’re fairly frost hardy, prefer a sunny location and, unlike the other marigolds, need fairly rich soil.
Like French marigolds, calendula will keep flowering if you dead-head the faded blossom. They’ll live longer if the weather remains mild and they’re growing in a sunny, warm spot.
Marigolds reportedly got their name from Saint Hildegard (1098-1179), who dedicated the flower to Mary, mother of Christ, and called it “Mary’s gold.” Mary in French is Marie, so the name appears to be a perfect marriage of French and English. But the modern French name for marigold is “souci,” which, translated, means worry. It would take a philologist to explain it, so I won’t try.
In the Middle Ages, the plant was considered a remedy for all sorts of maladies, from smallpox to indigestion. Perhaps we should try it for Covid-19.
Canna lilies, flowering on stalks up to eight feet tall, can also be seen in many Dorchester gardens now. To look at, you’d think they’d be more at home in a tropical rain forest. In fact, these perennials are native to the tropics and South America and belong to the banana family. Their leaves can be green, bronze or purple, sometimes striped with a lighter color. Their flowers, usually red, yellow or orange, look like gladioli.
Canna grow from thick, tuberous roots that should be lifted in fall, immediately after a hard frost – and do it in the morning, before the leaves turn black – then stored at a temperature no lower than 60 F. If left in the ground, protect the roots with a thick layer of mulch.
These plants like hot weather, with full sun on them for at least four hours a day, but need water every other day in the hottest part of summer. Canna will flourish even in boggy areas and they prefer fertile, moist soil.
Many other flowers will persist through October, brightening your days at a time when politics and the pandemic cast a shadow on our lives. Zinnias and tickseed are two examples. A friend of mine’s zinnias are about four feet tall. His tickseed, resembling exuberant bouquets of small, yellow sunflowers, grow even taller. His secret? Manure.
Gardening is a good cure for many worries and it’s endlessly fascinating. So, happy gardening!
Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.