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Plant Notebook
Trees for Autumn

As the growing season draws to a close many deciduous trees colour brilliantly before they lose their leaves - a final burst of colour and interest in the garden.

Cornus nuttallii
Cornus nuttallii
Those fortunate enough to live in cooler, temperate climates will be blessed with a blaze of autumn colour before the growing season comes to an end and the winter months give the garden (but not the gardener) a period of rest. Even in the far north it is possible to enjoy autumn colour in the garden, with careful selection of those trees and shrubs that will colour even without the greater temperature drop and bright sunny days that triggers the brilliant autumn shows in Central Otago and Cambridge.

This is a good time to look for lovely, bright foliage, to visit other gardens and check out your neighbourhood for some autumn effects that you can use in your own garden. Plan for even one tree with stunning foliage, site it against a dark background, and it will take your breath away.

Acer palmatum
Acer palmatum
Maples provide us with one of our most dramatic displays of autumn colour. Relatively slow growing and graceful in outline even the smallest garden can accommodate one of the beautiful maples (if your garden is a balcony then grow one in a large container!)

Acer palmatum and A. japonicum and their many cultivars are wonderful trees for the smaller garden. There is a huge range to choose from. Try the flaming red autumn foliage of A. p. 'Osakazuki' or golden 'Senkaki'. A. japonicum 'Vitifolium' will turn a glowing gold in autumn, while A. shirasawnum 'Aureum' is yellow and gold.
A.griseum, the 'paper bark' maple, colours orange and red, and it has fascinating stem colours. A. ginnala (now A. tataricum subsp. grandidentatum) turns a striking deep, red. A. campestre, the field maple, light green maple in summer becomes butter yellow in the autumn. Tougher and more wind hardy than most maples A. campestre is widely grown as a hedgerow tree through the UK, and it is available here.

A. rubrum, the red maple, and A. saccarum, the sugar maple, provide some of the most spectacular of the famous 'fall colors' of New England and into Canada. These are both large trees, however, and suited only to very spacious gardens.

Rosa 'Frau Dagmar Hastrup'
Rosa 'Frau Dagmar Hastrup'
But don't stop with maples. Generally grown as a large shrub in New Zealand, cotinus (called 'smoke trees' because the clouds of dusky pink flowers carried each summer resemble smoke) are actually small trees. The autumn colour of C. obovata is brighter than its purple leaved relative C. coggygria, but it is harder to find!

Viburnums will brighten a corner with autumn colour, the wedding cake layers of Viburnum plicatum 'Mariesii' or V.p. 'Larnarth' are both striking in the autumn garden. Do not overlook the shrub roses, Rosa rugosa will colour golden and the single forms will also carry wonderful heps long into winter.
The sumach (Rhus trilobata) is a fiery member of your garden in autumn becoming a brilliant mass of scarlet red and orange. Specimens cut to the ground every other year will show more exaggerated foliage effects but will not reach its full height. Plant it in full or part sun in a good soil. A warning: the sumach can become a problem with suckers appearing some distance from the parent plant, or colonizing a sizeable area.
The rowan or sorbus family includes a number of smaller trees that provide plenty of autumn interest. From the berries that form in the late summer until the glint of gold foliage in the autumn the common rowan or wayfaring tree, Sorbus aucuparia will bring autumn interest into your garden. S. cashmiriana has golden autumn leaves and white berries that will persist into winter. S. hupehensis carries pink berries and has blue-grey foliage that turns russet each autumn. S. 'Joseph Rock' produces some of the most spectacular foliage effects, but only when planted on good soil, with red-yellow and gold foliage that glows in the cool autumn light.
'Sorbus hupehensis' berries
'Sorbus hupehensis' berries
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Last revised 28 Feb '01