I must admit I love fall colors best. Spring vibrates against the eye with raw boundless energy. Summer fields every color imaginable in endless arrays. But fall has warm, glowing, rich and subtle tones, giving us a last flash of visual heat before the quiet palette of winter.
Almost everyone is familiar with the glorious scarlet of our native red maples, dogwoods and burning bush when they put on their fall display. Endless cultivars of Japanese maples are grown as much for their fall color as for their spring and summer show. But there are a number of other plants that add great splashes of color in the fall.
The native sassafras offers a whole range of colors in its leaves⎯orange, red, gold and burgundy. Crape myrtles, rightly beloved for their stunning summer flowers, also have a splendid array of fall foliage.
Amongst all the reds and oranges, a splash of yellow or gold is welcome. The ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is perhaps the best in this category. It is slow growing and very tolerant of our clay soils, heat and humidity. Its bright green fan shaped leaves turn a clear yellow in fall that shines against the red of other trees and shows up especially well against the dark green of magnolia and pine. There are a number of selections available. ‘Autumn Gold’ is spreading. ‘Princeton Sentry’ is narrow and upright. Both are large trees, reaching 40 feet or more. ‘Jade Butterflies’ is a dwarf suitable for a smaller space. ‘Gnome’ is even smaller. An extra plus is ginkgos drop their leaves all at once over the period of a few days, making cleanup easy. It is best to plant a selected male cultivar. Female ginkgos drop a messy and incredibly foul smelling fruit.
Fruit on plants add good color and texture to the fall landscape. ‘Flying Dragon’ trifoliate orange is quite a surprise in the fall. Not only do its bright orange fruits show up well against the dark green twisted stems, but the tiny leaves turn a bright yellow that rivals the ginkgo. Japanese persimmons shine on branches like bright orange lights. Pyracantha berries are burning orange or red. Burgundy pomegranates hang from branches like holiday ornaments. Beautyberry’s screaming fuchsia berries are more reminiscent of spring colors than fall, but are irresistible in their neon glory.
A number of fall blooming perennials and grasses add splashes of color. Asters offer a range of pinks and blues, giving a bit of a break from red and yellow. ‘Bluebird’ has tiny sky blue flowers, while ‘Lady in Black’ has red centered tiny white flowers with contrasting dark stems. Texas Bluestar amsonia is a neatly mounding perennial with pale steely blue flowers in spring. The ferny foliage turns bright gold in the fall. The native Muhly grass puts up soft plumes that hang like smoke over the fine leaves. It looks best planted in masses. Pennisetum ‘Prince’ is so dark it looks black the whole season, offering great contrast to the soft warn colors around it.
You can bring fall indoors as well. Branches, berries, flowers and fruit can be brought in for various autumn arrangements. ‘Flying Dragon’ branches combined with ‘Lady in Black’ asters and fronds of pennisetum ‘Prince’ are perfect for Halloween. Bowls of pomegranates and persimmons, vases of dried sedums and Miscanthus plumes both speak of Thanksgiving. Fat sprays of red Pyracantha are perfect for Christmas. Large leaves, like that of the oak leaf hydrangea, can even be used to present slices of cheese or other hors d’oeurvres.
Every season has its pleasures. With a little planning you can celebrate them all, even in a small space.
Pat Brothers works at Atlantic Avenue Orchid and Garden Center in Raleigh.