The plantsman and writer E A Bowles managed to combine the mind of a scientist with the soul of a poet. ‘There is a charm in the simple form of a single Anemone that goes straight to my heart’, he wrote. Although writing about spring-flowering anemones the autumn-flowering species have the same charm and, as Bowles’ contemporary, Vita Sackville-West, pointed out their flowers bring an echo of spring into the dark days of autumn.
Commonly known as Japanese anemones, autumn-flowering anemones are tough plants with bold foliage and delicate five-petalled flowers that spring from strong, slender stems. The leaves tend to be broad and lobed, bright green when they first appear and dull, deep green by the time the plant is flowers. Even before the plant flowers the tight buds that balance on the tops of the stems look attractive. So attractive that I have heard people say that they would be happy just to have the buds. That, though, would miss out on the greater part of the plant’s beauty. Some varieties have double flowers and some a second row of petals. For me, nothing matches the simple elegance of the single-flowered forms.
One of their common names is windflower but although harsh winds may scatter the flowers’ petals the plant is rarely blown over in the way that those other stalwarts of the autumn border, dahlias asters and chrysanthemums, are.
Although this group of plants has been naturalised in Japan for centuries they are native to central China. Anemone huphensis had been described in the 1780s by the Swedish botanist but it wasn’t for another sixty year that the Scottish plant hunter Robert Fortune managed to bring living specimens to Europe. The plant proved very popular with nurseryman and a decade later Victor Lemoine, a nuseryman in eastern France, introduced a cultivar that is still the most beautiful and popular of the group.
Now called A x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’ the plant brings as much allure to majestic double borders as it does to barren back yards, and I’ve seen it growing happily in both. The fat buds have a pink sheen but open to pure white saucer-shaped flowers that are enhanced by a green centred surrounded by a corolla of golden stamens. The flowers are given added substance by a double row of petals. It is unusual for a variety of herbaceous perennial to retain its popularity for over one hundred and fifty years. It is a testament to the robustness and beauty of ‘Honorine Jobert’ that the plant is still widely grown and admired.
The majority of autumn-flowering anemones that are grown in British gardens belong to two groups: A. huphensis and A. x hybrida. A. huphensis and its forms tend to begin flowering at the beginning of August and are rarely more than 1 metre tall. The flowers are strong, vivid colours and the reverse of the petals often have a grey sheen. A x hybrida flower four to six weeks later than A huphensis and are much taller, typically growing to 1.2 to 1.5 metres tall. Their flowers tend to be pale and their habit more rampant than the earlier-flowering forms.
You will find these plants being sold under all sorts of names in nurseries and garden centres, including the now-obsolete A. japonica. In 1947 EA Bowles joined forces with the botanist William Stearn to publish a comprehensive description of the origin and naming of autumn-flowering anemones. It is taking a while for some of that information to filter through to plant growers.
Whatever they are called, autumn-flowering anemones deservedly dominate many gardens in late summer and the autumn. Most will flower throughout August, September and October and some varieties will flower later into November. Few herbaceous perennials can boast such as long flowering period. All forms have bright cheery flowers with none of the mournfulness of autumn about them. They bring into the last few weeks of the flowering year the gaiety and colour of summer.