One of the great things about gardening in the South is our long growing season. With cooler temperatures both gardeners and plants celebrate the autumn garden. Depending on the year, by late October or early November, the landscape is a canvas of brilliant color.
Japanese maples, Ginkgo biloba and berried beauties like viburnums and beautyberry all add to the scene. Not as well known for its autumn finery, but certainly garden worthy, is the Chinese fringe tree, Chionanthus retusus, which waits until November before its leaves turn bright yellow.
While it is known that temperature, sunlight and soil moisture affect the quality of the fall foliage display, some plants like Japanese maples are known for the show they put on in autumn. Colorful fall foliage is due to the presence of yellow and orange pigments known as xanthophylls and carotenoids. During the growing season their presence is masked by the green of chlorophyll. It’s only when chlorophyll breaks down and is not replaced that these colorful pigments take center stage. Adding to the autumnal show are the purple and red pigments known as anthocyanins. These pigments are only manufactured in the fall. This may explain the reason leaves turn colors in autumn but as gardeners we respond because it makes us happy to see the landscape with its many shades of red, orange, yellow and purple.
There are hundreds of cultivars of Japanese maples, each with its own distinct charm. Favorites include the coralbark maple, Acer palmatum
‘Sango Kaku’ with golden leaves in fall set off by coral red bark, and ‘Bloodgood’ with burgundy red foliage that turns scarlet in the autumn. For brilliant orange foliage, the selection ‘Ryusen’ is a good choice. With a strict weeping habit, it provides a dramatic focal point in the garden and like all Japanese maples, it offers four seasons of beauty.
Deciduous shrubs like beautyberry, Callicarpa dichotoma, look best when planted against a background of evergreens like hollies or Anise. Clusters of lavender fruit appear before callicarpa drops its foliage and persist late into the season. Viburnums such as the tea viburnum, Viburnum setigerum, produce striking scarlet fruit-a perfect focal point or as part of a combination planting with other shrubs. Old standbys like American hollies, Ilex opaca, provide glossy evergreen foliage throughout the year, and colorful berries in fall and winter. (You only need one male cultivar to pollinate a group of females.) These native broadleaf evergreens also serve as a backdrop to show off deciduous hollies like Ilex verticillata, with fruits in red, orange and yellow.
A grouping that offers lots of color, is Amsonia hubrichtii with golden-yellow willow-like foliage, Viburnum dilatatum and Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ a profuse bloomer with single, bright red flowers. The combination of yellow and red lights up the garden and warms the heart.
To see more examples of plants with colorful fall foliage or fruits visit Gibbs Gardens (with over 2,000 Japanese maples) in October and November. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 9 am to 5 pm.