The foliage colour of our garden ornamentals should be simply outstanding every fall. While many gardens will be ablaze with a ‘foliage bonanza’, many others are missing this important seasonal event. It is so easy to choose flowering and ornamental trees that bloom in the spring, but with a little care you can, at the same time, select trees that provide a beautiful fall display as well.
Dogwoods are a prime example. ‘Florida’ dogwoods, native to the eastern United States, provide outstanding fall colour. As a rule of thumb, they are shorter and bushier than our natives, making them ideal for screening. The most popular ‘Florida’ is the ‘Rubra’ or ‘Pink Dogwood’. Its masses of dark-pink blossoms in May of each year are a welcome sight. The variety ‘Rainbow’ displays a profusion of rich tri-coloured leaves that provide some of the most spectacular fall colour. Few sights are as beautiful in autumn as sunshine illuminating these leaves.
The many varieties of ‘Kousa’ or Chinese dogwoods extend the blooming period in the spring because they bloom in June and July, when other varieties have finished. They also tolerate quite a bit of shade, which may be of interest for those of you living in heavily treed areas. Their fall leaves are a brilliant, vibrant red with huge edible seed pods hanging like giant raspberries throughout the tree. It is such an interesting plant to have in the garden, and I truly hope that more folks use them. There are many new varieties, some with stunning variegated foliage that also turns amazing colours.
Japanese maples certainly lead the pack in the outstanding colour department. The only problem these days is making a choice between the many fine varieties. One of the finest, ‘Acer griseum’, often called the ‘Paper Bark’ maple because of its arbutus-like peeling red bark, has brilliant red foliage. The ‘Coral Bark’ maple ‘Sango Kaku’ is considered to be one of the most outstanding of all maples. The autumn colour range of red maples is everything from deep burgundy to the most vibrant fire engine red, but don’t overlook the green-leafed varieties, like ‘Osakazuki’, that also offer an incredible range of fall colours.
Another unique tree that has not been readily available until the past few years is the ‘Persian Parrotia’. It is a small and rather slow-growing shrub that provides a beautiful display of dense-headed flowers with red stamens surrounded by woolly brown bracts before the leaves open. In fall, the filbert-type leaves turn brilliant scarlet to orange. When the leaves disappear, it reveals quite an interesting smooth grey winter bark that flakes to show intriguing white patches.
One of the most fascinating fall trees is the Japanese stewartia. It is a summer bloomer that often carries right on into the fall. The flowers are truly distinctive, starting off as little round white balls that burst open like a camellia, revealing bright yellow anthers. That’s why it is often referred to as a pseudo-camellia. Those white flowers, combined with foliage that first turns scarlet, then bronze and finally purple, make this tree a wonderful fall specimen.
If you’re looking for a colourful tree that is quite resistant to pests, how about the ‘Katsura’ tree or ‘Cercidiphyllum japonicum’. It is a medium-sized tree with attractive round leaves that have a purple tint on their outer rim all summer long. The unusual shape of the leaves and the beautiful yellow to scarlet fall colours certainly make it a great garden plant, especially at this time of year. Its leaves also have a sweet scent of lightly burnt sugar. There is only one tiny problem – it doesn’t hold its fall colour very long.
One of my favourite small trees is the little known and unfortunately, seldom planted ‘Sourwood’ tree. Oxydendrum arboreum has multitudes of long creamy white flowers in drooping racemes that add lots of colour to a July and August garden. Almost immediately after flowering, the long narrow leaves turn a brilliant scarlet and last well into the fall. It’s a beautiful smaller tree for sunny or shady locations.
Every garden should have at least one ‘Burning Bush’, and if you only have a small garden, there is a compact form now available. The ‘Euonymus alata’ has dense twiggy branches with interesting corky wings, making it very attractive in winter, but its small deep green leaves turn brilliant orange-red in fall along with hundreds of tiny orange-red fruits. These plants also make a nice deciduous hedge.
‘Enkianthus’ has, perhaps, one of the most attractive fall colours of any flowering shrub. It looks somewhat like a small-leafed rhododendron with red Pieris japonica-like flowers in spring. Its tiny leaves turn brilliant red for the longest time each fall, making it a super addition to any autumn garden.
These are a few of the more unique and beautiful plants that deserve a spot in any garden, not only for fall, but also for interesting year round contributions. Fall is one of the very best times to plant, so why not add at least one of these hardy plants to your garden collection for an autumn show. A sunny location and well drained soil creates the best scenario for vibrant fall colour.
Brian Minter is a master gardener who operates Minter Gardens in Chilliwack.