ONE OF the most beautiful plants of early fall, Viburnum setigerum, is a great woody shrub with arching stems to perhaps 10 feet and dangling clusters of sealing-wax scarlet berries.
I think all viburnums sit quietly for a year or two after planting, then grow steadily or vigorously. It is such a marvelous family, with all-around good looks and good behavior.
When I walk the hound I am delighted to notice at two or three points along nearby alleys that this viburnum has been planted, and within a few years they will be fabulous ornaments.
Another shrub rarely thought of is the abelia, a semi-evergreen rounded bush that grows to 6 or 8 feet. It is never very exciting, but then it is never very disappointing, either. Its leaves are like small pointed privet leaves, and each stemlet or twig is decked with white flowers all summer. These are clusters of inch-long white trumpets touched at the base with bronze-madder, and bees love them.
If one had a stucco house and thought a few big billows of boxwood would look good against it, but had neither the centuries nor the dollars to acquire them, then the abelia would be an excellent substitute.
Farther south the abelia is everywhere, so that you can get weary of it. It is as common as the forsythia is up here. The abelia blooms through October, and in November you notice the dull rosy papery bracts, left after the flowers fall, and these give the illusion the shrub is still in flower.
It is a good all-around serviceable shrub.
My osmanthus, 'Gulftide,' is blooming half-heartedly, and its tiny white flowers are scented to jasmine, like most of the sweet-olive tribe.
People seeing this osmanthus usually think it a holly, and it can be used wherever a small holly would be. Its leaves, about the size of a Foster holly or a small American holly leaf, are amply spined, and like holly leaves they take forever to rot when they eventually fall. You will discover them, uncomfortably, if they fall into a mulch through which spring bulbs are growing, if you go feeling about.
This osmanthus takes clipping well, by the way, and would make a nice formal hedge 6 feet high. Often it does not bloom, though a little azalea-camellia fertilizer once a year will often inspire it to flower.
The great sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans) is something else, having smooth leaves and a strong distaste for winters. It could not be expected to grow as far north as Washington. The hybrid 'Gulftide' has handsomer foliage and is hardy, but you need not expect to swoon as you pass by it in November, as you would surely do if you passed by the great smooth-leaved sweet olive of the Far South.
Yet another shrub of moderate interest in the fall is another broadleaf evergreen, the Russian olive, and the sort usually sold here, called 'Fruitland' (named for the great and lamented Fruitland Nurseries of Augusta, Ga.) is the best.
Though it is an eleagnus, not an osmanthus, its flowers look much the same and the scent is surprisingly similar.
Unlike the osmanthus which can be clipped neatly, the Russian olive, 'Fruitland', is not so good as a hedge. It likes to send out nearly naked shoots 8 feet long, and after a few months the leaves appear sparingly. The following year it thickens up a bit, but its expansive habit of flinging itself about is disconcerting if you have a near 4-foot hedge in mind.
Its leaves are oval and leathery, with waxy dots beneath. Once I went to a wedding in Charlottesville in which the whole chapel had been bedecked with sprigs of this Russian olive and I was astonished at the strength of that perfume, since in the garden you only catch a whiff of it now and then.
The flowers are followed by little oval olive-like hard fruits in the spring. These are brownish red with waxy dots on them, and mockingbirds eat them. Mockingbirds and catbirds love to nest in this shrub.
In a former garden I had a big plant of 'Fruitland' growing up the trunk of an old elm. This olive abides root competition and dryness and heat amazingly well for a broadleaf evergreen. But what is most beautiful (apart from its quite divine disposition in the garden) is the way it leans against a tree and climbs up, throwing out long shoots, so that in a few years it makes a thick evergreen mass.
You could never get that effect by pruning some other broadleaf evergreen to imitate it.
This Russian olive may be used stupidly, of course, like any other plant.
A pretty example of lunacy in the use of plants may been seen on the L Street side of The Washington Post, where this most wonderful 'Fruitland' has been used as a bedding plant in a huge (and extravangently expensive) stone planting box. Dozens of specimens were planted within touching distance of each other, thus affording the pleasant task of keeping them clipped to size.
Since the natural character of the plant is to arch out and billow up against an oak trunk to a height of 20 feet, you will comprehend its unsuitability for a position in which it is supposed to make a little round pudding 24 inches high.
You might as well choose guards and tackles to model silk ribbons.
But the worst and most offensive thing about using this great shrub as if it were a geranium is that its true character is never allowed to develop. I hope, and halfway suspect, that eventually a couple of these noble shrubs will take off during a season in which general maintenance falters, and the rest will die out, and eventually perhaps we shall see the great beauty of which it is capable.
By November, even without a freeze of 32 degrees, flowers decline almost to nothingness. Yet I love to go out in mid-November and find a flower or two on the roses. The old red Bengal -- or 'Slater's Crimson' or Rosa semperflorens plena (as it is variously known) or the 'Old Red Monthly' -- will always be one of the last roses blooming in the fall.
It is not much to look at and is excessively rare, largely because few wish to grow it. From this rose are descended all our modern red roses, without exception.
But not one of its descendants is as determined about blooming as this old red Bengal is. It has scarcely any scent, and very little in the way of shape, either. Its foliage is good, relatively disease-free, and the bush is on the small side. I love it mainly because I love it, and for its historical and genetic importance, but I cannot say it is much to look at.
Another out-of-the-way rose I can count on in November is 'Blush Noisette,' which is descended from an ingenious and unlikely union of the wild musk rose and the common red China rose.
The first Noisette (named for the raiser in the early 19th century) was a rose that bloomed only in spring, but from its seeds came 'Blush Noisette,' which blooms all the time. You commonly see it in old gardens. Or did, when old gardens were common. It is often treated as a knee-high shrub, always in bloom, but if given a sheltered wall and plenty of manure and a few years, it can make a climber up to 16 feet or so.