It’s time to stop and stare to admire the fiery fall colors of the foliage as it closes for winter. It’s a short time to enjoy as it only takes a few windy days to clear those beautiful leaves. The painterly combinations of crimson, gold, orange and plum violet are the result of an annual chemical event.
Throughout the year, the leaves serve as food factories by converting chlorophyll into energy. Chlorophyll is green, which gives the leaf its color but also masks other pigments in the leaf like yellow and orange. In the fall, when it gets colder and daylight hours shorten, the leaves stop their food-making process. Chlorophyll breaks down and disappears, the yellows and oranges emerge, and that’s when the big show happens. Other chemical changes can occur that produce red pigments that we see most vividly in maple trees, while other blends produce the purple hues of dogwood, liquidambar, and parrot.
The deer’s horn sumac, Rhus typhina, is currently one of the most conspicuous. It’s one of the best small trees for fall color, but not everyone’s favorite due to its aggressive sucking habit, which regularly sends shoots from the base and spreads beyond.
However, there is a better behaved version – called Tiger Eyes. Not only are the leaves very nicely groomed, almost fern-like, they stay compact three to six feet tall and aren’t very suckery. In any case, simply cut off any unwanted shoots as they appear. It does well in most soils, preferably moist but well drained and in full or partial shade. As well as the wonderful oranges and scarlets to enjoy in fall, the cone-shaped flowers that emerge in summer linger on the antler-like branches for the winter.
The gently serrated feathery leaves of the golden rain tree, Koelreuteria, have turned a fiery orange. This graceful medium-sized tree is also known as the Pride of India, although it is native to East Asia. It deserves its place in a small garden with its multi-seasonal interest. Attractive leaves in spring are followed in summer by panicles of small yellow flowers that develop into interesting bubble- or lantern-shaped fruits. And then comes this gorgeous show before she drops her leaves for the winter. Tolerant of pollution and dry, chalky soil, it grows best in full sun.
As we approach Halloween, keep an eye out for Cercidiphyllum japonicum. Its dainty, heart-shaped leaves take on vibrant shades of yellow, orange and pink this month and have an appealing toffee scent reminiscent of toffee apples and campfires! It’s an elegant tree for a medium-sized garden, and while its colors shine brightest in acidic soil, it’s happy enough in neutral soil too. A beautiful specimen tree, it’s on my “should plant a lot more often” list!
The Sargent cherry is one of the loveliest flowering cherries with beautiful pink flowers in spring. These are accompanied by delicate, pink-bronze colored young leaves. However, she is also grown for her stunning fall colors, which I’ve been enjoying a lot lately. It is one of the first deciduous trees to take on its color and you will easily recognize its iridescent and fiery purple and orange leaves. They can grow in full sun in most soils, but do not like waterlogging. She can reach a height of 30 feet when mature, so is not suitable for smaller plots.
So if you’re looking to add some autumn appeal to your garden, consider planting one of these, all of which are available at most nurseries and garden centers.
plant of the week
Chrysanthemum ‘Mary Stoker’
Hardy chrysanthemums produce welcome flowers in the fall. ‘Mary Stoker’ is an old reliable and productive bloomer with many single daisy flowers that are a soft apricot yellow with touches of pink. They look great in containers or tubs and will last until a severe frost declares the end of the season. After that, if they get messy, trim them back. You can part every few years in spring to keep them plump and nip out the growing tops in June to encourage floral sprays. Grow in full sun or part shade in well-drained soil as they don’t like to get too waterlogged in winter.
Reader Questions and Answers
What is the best way to protect a yucca over the winter? I’ve tried fleece but the wind keeps blowing it to pieces. Can I tie plastic around it?
I wouldn’t recommend plastic, even with drainage holes, as you’d probably unwrap this plant in spring to find it’s gone to a pulp. Try burlap and tie it tightly with string to keep it from flying off. You will need a helper to hold the leaves close to the stem and I recommend wearing protective gloves and even eye protection gear when handling this plant as the leaves are very prickly and can cause serious eye damage.
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https://www.independent.ie/life/home-garden/diarmuid-gavins-favourite-trees-for-a-fiery-autumn-display-42062698.html Diarmuid Gavin’s favorite trees for a fiery autumn display