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