One of the stars of the autumn garden is surely the perennial plant known as the Japanese windflower (Anemone hupehensis and Anemone x hybrida). At the end of February, firm stems up to 1m or more tall, holding clusters of plump buds, arise from basal clumps of grapevine-like leaves. These buds open in March and April to simple but beautiful cup-shaped flowers in shades of pale pink, darker pinks or white, with single or double rows of silken petals. The single white form is possibly the most graceful in its elegant simplicity as the flowers hover in the air high above the foliage like exotic moths, but all the windflower cultivars are lovely.
Originating in China, these perennials have been bred over the years to produce a wide range of named cultivars, although often they are sold in nurseries simply described by colour and form. 'Honorine Jobert' is the classic single white windflower; 'Whirlwind' is a semi-double flowered white version; 'Bowles Pink' is a beautiful single form with deep rosy pink petals edged in white; 'Margarete' is a deep pink semi-double type; and 'September Charm' has a pale pink single flower.
Japanese windflowers grow fairly well in Sydney, even in coastal areas: I have seen them flourishing in the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney. Their preference is for a part-shaded situation: they originate in damp, open woodland areas in China. They do appreciate a soil enriched with organic matter, and reasonable moisture in order to get established, but once they are ensconced, they can cope with drier conditions, and are in fact almost impossible to get rid of! They do have a tendency to spread, via a creeping rootstock, but they can be controlled with a shovel and should be sited in the first instance in a place where their encroaching habit is not going to smother small treasures or cause problems. Propagation is traditionally by root-cuttings, but small rooted runners can often be successfully potted up. Sometimes patches may be afflicted with some sort of fungal disease and begin to die off - usually after heavy rain or periods of high humidity. Remove the affected parts and dispose of them in the green bin (not the compost heap!) then water over the soil with an eco-friendly fungcicide.
A home in informal parts of the garden amongst small trees or shrubs is probably the best idea, and one excellent companion for them is the mop-headed Hydrangea. The windflowers can wander amongst these robust shrubs without causing any mischief, and their blooms mingle well with any late-blooming blue, pink or white Hydrangea flower heads as well as the ageing ones as they slowly metamorphose through strange greenish-pink, midnight-blue and murky purple colours on their way to senescence. Their large leaves also provide a lush green backdrop against which the windflowers are well displayed.
Windflowers also look appropriate roaming through lightly shaded spots with Camellia sasanqua which are in full bloom at this time, in a similar range of colours to the windflowers, and with the same simple flower form. The bold foliage and spreading habit of the windflowers provide a good low maintenance groundcover in such areas, except for a brief period after flowering when the old leaves and stems should be cut right back to allow fresh growth to emerge. Iris japonica, with its arching fans of foliage, can also provide contrast of form to windflowers grown amongst sasanqua camellias.
Some of the many beautiful autumn-flowering Plectranthus species and cultivars now available also combine wonderfully well with the windflowers. They are ideal for part-shaded areas of the garden and are easy-care plants with few needs.
Although Japanese windflowers are forgiving plants once established, they do respond gratefully to any organic mulch or fertilizer they are given, as well as an occasional good soaking. It is best to feed and mulch them in late winter before fresh growth begins to burgeon in spring. Come autumn, the rewards will be delightful!
The flowering stems can be cut for vases.