Standing tall

High summer is all about abundance, and joe-pye weed, one of my favorite perennials, epitomizes this time of year. I’m especially fond of the ‘Gateway’ variety: A little shorter than the wildlings, it has wonderful dark stems. In contrast with such “normal” summer perennials as phlox and day lilies, joe-pye weed is a giant, bursting with bold abandon—the Wilt Chamberlain of the late-summer garden.

Up in the air: A tiger swallowtail butterfly pays a visit to a Joe Pye weed. photo by Edmund Taylor

For those who consider the standard joe-pye weed too much, a new cultivar called ‘Little Joe’ is only half the height. To me, it lacks the blowzy majesty of either ‘Gateway’ or the wild, roadside form. But like its larger kin, it’s a butterfly magnet.

Indeed, one of the great late-summer garden vignettes is a stand of joe-pye weed covered with swallowtails and great spangled fritillaries. Along with echinacea, it’s a premier butterfly plant for this time of year. Close behind joe-pye weed in stature are giant coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) and ‘Herbstonne’ black-eyed Susan.

Giant coneflower has tall stems and enormous, glaucous leaves. Its deep-yellow petals surround huge, chocolate cones that become goldfinch magnets as the seeds mature.

‘Herbstonne’ black-eyed Susan is another Rudbeckia in the big-and-tall section at over 6 feet. It has wonderful green eyes (not black like its cousins), surrounded by pure-yellow, drooping petals. It is just now beginning to bloom in my border and will continue for six weeks or so, well into late summer.

Closely related to Rudbeckia, and even more statuesque, are the swamp and willow-leafed sunflowers in the genus Helianthus. True giants, they can reach a height of 10 feet in rich, moist soil. Not for the faint of heart or those with limited garden space, these giant sunflowers are outstanding in the wild garden or in a deep border. They’re also a great food source for birds as the seedheads mature.

Another bold genus to add to this mix is hibiscus—not the tender, tropical hibiscus but any of the wealth of hardy native species and hybrids that add great color and height to the midsummer scene. The easiest species to find is H. coccineus, which has deeply cut, maplelike leaves and red flowers on stems that can reach 7 to 8 feet if they’re happy. Many hybrids are derived from native species. The Fleming brothers of Nebraska worked for 40 years hybridizing this genus, and the results of their work are now finding their way into garden centers. Two that I particularly like are ‘Fireball’, whose flower is an extraordinary burning shade of red, and ‘Kopper King’, which has coppery-red foliage and huge, light-pink flowers.

For a free and naturalistic effect, all these robust perennials look especially good mixed with some of the taller grasses, such as big bluestem, feather reed grass and switchgrass. All these plants need to be grown in full sun to keep them from leaning or collapsing and avoid the need for staking.

One final group worth including in this parade of giants is some of the true lilies. In full bloom right now in my garden is Lilium ‘Leslie Woodruff’, named for one of the great American lily breeders. A towering plant with lush foliage and a huge head of enormous, down-facing blossoms, it was one of the first tetraploid lilies to be introduced. As with other plant groups that have had their chromosomes doubled, such as bearded iris and day lilies, the result is a larger, more robust plant with greater flower substance.

One of the parents of ‘Leslie Woodruff’ is L. ‘Black Beauty’. It’s been around for nearly 50 years and is one of the most persistent lilies, getting bigger and better year after year. ‘Black Beauty’ is another tall one that blooms midsummer, and a well-grown plant can produce 30 or more black-red blooms.

The most exciting recently developed group of lilies are the Orienpets, crosses between Oriental lilies like ‘Stargazer’ and trumpet lilies. Combining the beauty and scent of the Orientals with the height and toughness of the trumpets, they make majestic garden residents.

Judith Freeman, a native Tar Heel now transplanted to Washington State, is the premier North American lily breeder and a pioneer in Orienpet breeding. Her first effort was ‘Scheherazade’, another tough, tall lily. If you’ve planted lilies before and seen them gradually fade away, try some of these and you won’t be disappointed. They’re both spectacular and truly perennial.

What better way to celebrate summer abundance than forgoing some of those compact bedding plants and ‘supersizing’? Even a small garden can find room for a few of these big players to mix it up a bit and add a needed vertical dimension.

[Garden designer Edmund Taylor lives and gardens in the wilds of Madison County. He can be reached at]

To learn more about Judith Freeman’s lilies, visit

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