Prairie landscape filled with gold
“Not all that glitters is gold” and in our prairie autumns, it’s often your neighbours’ trees. If you’ve been driving through established neighbourhoods in your community with a covetous eye toward their older trees, ablaze with golden autumn colour, here is a sampling of some of the trees you’ve probably been looking at. Trees seldom offer instant gratification, but if you’re quick off the mark next spring, you’ll have colour the same fall. (Remember, big is not always best. Large trees have had a larger percentage of their roots removed; it will take them a few years to “catch up.” My motto has generally been to never buy a tree taller than I am.)
Among those with yellow-gold fall foliage are silver maple, larch, bur oak, linden, basswood and Ohio buckeye.
Silver maple (Acer saccahrinum) eventually grows to about 50 feet or slightly taller with a spread of about 18 feet, and an upright, oval form. An excellent shade tree, it prefers a somewhat sheltered location out of the wind, and deep, moist but well drained soil. It has attractive, light grey bark, palmately lobed leaves that are dark green above and silver below (thus the common name), and turn a clear yellow in fall.
Larches are conifers but are not “evergreen.” Every autumn, they drop their needles in a glorious blaze of gold. Two species are available to prairie gardeners. The American larch, Larix laricina, (commonly known as the tamarack and native to our northern forests), reaches about 20 feet, with a narrow pyramidal form. It prefers moist soil. The Siberian larch (Larix sibirica) is slightly larger, broader, and extremely drought-tolerant once established. Both are excellent as accent trees or, where space permits, as groupings.
Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) are large (50 x 30 feet), high-headed, longlived trees, native to Manitoba. They have straight trunks and a deep taproot that allows under-plantings (perennials and shrubs) to thrive without competition. They grow in full sun or partial shade, are adaptable to a wide range of soils from sandy through clay, and are very drought-tolerant once established. The leaves are leathery, deeply lobed and turn yellow through golden brown in the fall.
Basswood (Tilia americana) and little leaf linden (Tilia cordata) are more or less “cousins” and share many common characteristics. Their main difference is size. While basswood will reach 50 to 60 feet, the little leaf linden tops out at about 30 to 40 feet. Both are amazingly symmetrical with a distinctly pyramidal form, dense and low headed. They have distinctive bracts (modified leaves), below which are clusters of fragrant yellow flowers in mid-summer, followed by pea-sized “nutlets.” When you walk near or under a Tilia in bloom, you’re enveloped in its pleasant fragrance. Young trees are very shade tolerant – making them excellent candidates for planting near declining older trees as eventual replacements. Both species prefer deep, fertile, evenly moist soil, but become fairly drought-tolerant once established. Their leaves are heartshaped and toothed and turn a lovely yellow in the fall.
Last but not least of these autumn goldie oldies is Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra), one of the best shade or specimen trees available to prairie gardeners. Small to medium in size (20 to 40 feet), it is trouble free, fully hardy, in scale with an average urban lot, and should be much more widely planted. Large attractive, creamy yellow flowers are formed in upright panicles in early summer, followed by the “buckeyes” or nuts (which are poisonous, not edible). The attractive foliage is palamatelycompound, each leaf resembling the palm of one’s hand and composed of 5 to 7 oval leaflets. Dark green through the summer, they turn a lovely “antique gold” in fall.
A golden little leaf linden