Carol’s au­tumn colour choices

En­joy the show as au­tumn puts on its fi­nal spec­tac­u­lar per­for­mance. Carol Klein rev­els in the colours of the sea­son and ex­plains why ev­ery gar­den should be part of the ac­tion

Gardeners' World - - Contents -

Ev­ery­one, even non- gar­den­ers, knows about au­tumn colour − it is ev­ery­where. In the heart of the city, the colours of chest­nuts, planes, sycamores and cher­ries wash the cityscape with the tones of their glow­ing fo­liage. Those who look to the ground are just as aware of it as those with their sights set higher, as leaves tum­ble down to cre­ate car­pets of colour on the pave­ment. Else­where, even on nor­mally silent train jour­neys, trav­ellers can’t help but men­tion the au­tumn show, es­pe­cial ly on beau­ti­ful golden days . It seems to make ev­ery­body happy. Even mo­tor­way em­bank­ments are ablaze with the flames of bril­liant crim­son of our na­tive dog­wood, Cor­nus san­guinea, in its au­tumn guise. And yes, all the talk in the gar­den is about au­tumn colour, too. Au­tumn colour is all a re­sult of our de­cid­u­ous trees set­tling down into their win­ter rou­tine and aban­don­ing their leaves – it’s a sign of im­mi­nent ex­piry, which makes it all the more poignant. Dur­ing spring and sum­mer, the chloro­plasts within the leaves con­stantly com­bine sun­light, wa­ter and car­bon diox­ide to pro­duce su­gars to feed the plants and re­lease the oxy­gen that en­ables life on earth. As tem­per­a­tures fall and day­light length short­ens, the ben­e­fit from the leaves di­min­ishes un­til it be­comes a los­ing equa­tion and the leaves are re­lin­quished. Be­fore this hap­pens, the chloro­phyll within the leaves, which has given them their green colour, is re­ab­sorbed by the tree. The other colours within the leaves, which though present through­out the life of the leaf were dis­guised by the chloro­phyll, can now be seen clearly.


Among the top au­tumn per­form­ers, our na­tive spin­dle, Euony­mus eu­ropaeus, is trans­formed from a uni­form worka­day green to cerise and vivid pink. And, as if this weren’t enough, the vi­brant fo­liage is ac­com­pa­nied by pink and or­ange fruits. But spin­dles from more ex­otic climes have

long been pop­u­lar with Bri­tish gar­den­ers. As well as pro­vid­ing the best colour cli­max of the sea­son, many have fas­ci­nat­ing fruit that lasts long into the au­tumn. Among the best for glow­ing, deep-pink au­tumn colour is Euony­mus pla­nipes or the very sim­i­lar E. sacha­li­nen­sis, both from the Far East. Closer to home, Euro­pean E. lat­i­folius has a simi lar habit and stature, and its leaves also blush to bril­liant red as tem­per­a­tures drop and the sea­son changes. All three of these spin­dles are eas­ily ac­com­mo­dated in the av­er­age gar­den – they’re slow-grow­ing and look like large shrubs rather than small trees, and any wi l l light up the dul l, dark days of au­tumn to make you wish the sea­son would go on for­ever. Even when their leaves fall to the f loor, the pink and crim­son car­pet these spin­dles cre­ate adds splashes of hor­i­zon­tal colour. They have an el­e­gant habit with slen­der branches, pointed buds and small leaves. Witch hazels, how­ever, have big, round leaves. It won’t be long be­fore we start ex­pound­ing the virtues of their scented, spi­dery flow­ers, but right now the leaves are the talk­ing point. Ha­mamelis mol­lis turns to soft, but­tery yel­low, creat­ing bea­cons in the darker re­cesses of the gar­den, while the fo­liage of oth­ers hots up to in­can­des­cent or­anges and reds – H. ‘Diane’ and H. ‘Je­lena’ are two of the most vivid. Witch hazels do well in shade and, if there are clumps of wood­lan­ders such as Solomon’s seal,

The leaves of ‘Joseph Rock’ turn red, crim­son and pur­ple, creat­ing a dra­matic ef­fect

Smi­lacina and lily of the val­ley nearby, they add to the au­tum­nal show as their bold leaves turn to am­ber. Most ha­mamelis are from Asia, and so too are many of the sor­bus, or moun­tain ash, that we trea­sure in our gar­dens. Their ma­jor or­na­men­tal ben­e­fit, or at least the one most com­monly men­tioned, is their berries, but most are of equal value for their au­tumn colour. One of the most out­stand­ing is Sor­bus ‘Joseph Rock’, a beau­ti­ful up­right tree with a com­pact head. As au­tumn ap­proaches, the leaves of this va­ri­ety be­gin to turn red, crim­son and pur­ple, creat­ing a dra­mat ic ef­fect , es­pe­cial ly when ac­com­pa­nied by the glo­ri­ous pale-yel­low fruits. Sor­bus sar­gen­tiana has a broader head, red fruit and an equally mag­nif­i­cent au­tumn uni­form.

Re­mark­able au­tumn colour is not con­fined to na­tive and Asi­atic trees. Per­haps the most fa­mous of all au­tumn shows is ‘fall’ seen in Amer­ica, es­pe­cially on the East Coast. In fact, many a hol­i­day is planned around a visit to the forests and woods of New Eng­land. Of course, few of us have room to ac­com­mo­date the huge maples and oaks that make up the greater part of this kalei­do­scope, but there are sev­eral North Amer­i­can trees that, if we do have a bit more space than usual, could

There are oo­dles of her­ba­ceous plants that adopt a dif­fer­ent guise as day length short­ens

con­trib­ute fiery colour to our own au­tumn gar­dens. Nyssa syl­vat­ica, or tu­pelo, is one, and although it even­tu­ally makes a large tree it is slow-grow­ing and has mag­nif­i­cent colour. Its Chi­nese rel­a­tive, Nyssa sinen­sis, is smaller and eas­ier to fit in, but with the same bril­liant colour. Of all the Amer­i­can shrubs and trees that give glow­ing au­tumn colour, while be­ing a re­al­is­tic propo­si­tion for smaller gar­dens, the ame­lanchiers must win first prize. If you haven’t got room for an ame­lanchier, then Hy­drangea quer­ci­fo­lia, the oak-leaved hy­drangea, has trusses of creamy-white flow­ers in late sum­mer, and its large ‘oak’ leaves turn rus­sets, reds and or­anges in Oc­to­ber; every­thing you want when it comes to au­tumn colour from a sin­gle shrub.

Sup­port­ing roles

Where and how you plan your au­tumn colour de­pends to a large ex­tent on how big your gar­den is. But even if you can only fit in one spec­tac­u­lar acer that be­comes the fo­cal point, there are oo­dles of her­ba­ceous plants that adopt a dif­fer­ent guise as day length short­ens and that can play sup­port­ing roles in the au­tumn cav­al­cade. Among them is Gil­lenia tri­fo­li­ata ( renowned for its di­aphanous white f low­ers ear­lier in the year) which has fo­liage that changes to or­ange and yel­low, as do many oth­ers of the rose fam­ily, while the leaves of rodger­sias turn ruby red. Au­tumn is not just an ad­junct to the spring and sum­mer in the gar­den, it is also a spe­cial time of its own, the most at­mo­spheric sea­son of all. And, thanks to the mag­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion that our plants make, it can be the cli­max of the whole year.

This witch hazel’s au­tumn’s hues are caused when chloro­phyll be­comes ab­sent from the leaves

5 6 8 7

Make sure your pot of­fers a few inches around the root­ball to al­low for growth

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