Marin Master Gardeners
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Marin Master Gardeners

Marin IJ Articles


The Brilliant Colors of Fall

November 10, 2008
Nanette Londeree

I love fall. The warm, clear days and cool, crisp nights; the season’s first refreshing rain, and the brilliant colors that adorn city streets and home gardens. No need to hop a plane to New England to enjoy glimmering yellows, reds, golds, oranges and purples as Mother Nature puts on her autumn show. Marin has an abundance of trees and shrubs that herald the changing of seasons. While our transition from summer to fall may not be as dramatic as it is in Connecticut or Vermont, it has the right elements to produce a spectacular fall display, all while you’re still bopping about in your shorts and sandals. And, it’s a great time of year to add some blaze of color to your own garden.

Many deciduous plants—ones that drop their leaves during the late fall— are fairly nondescript during much of the year, providing a backdrop of verdant greenery. Then, with just the right combination of conditions, the greens are slowly infused with rainbows of glowing yellows, fiery oranges and sparkling reds. The colors the tree or shrub displays in autumn are primarily due to the plants’ genes, like the amber and plum colors of sweet gums (Liquidambar) or the lemony-yellow of quaking aspens. Day-length and weather are the other key elements that result in vivid displays. That is why one year you may see exuberant colors that seem to last for weeks, and other years, fall passes like a bright flash.
The colors that decorate the season come from three pigments in the plants leaves—chlorophyll, carotenoid and anthocyanin. Chlorophyll gives leaves their basic green color and is necessary for the plant to create food from sunlight. Carotenoids produce yellow, orange and brown colors—you see them in corn, carrots, bananas and daffodils. The reds and purples in strawberries, cherries and plums are a result of anthocyanins. Chlorophyll and carotenoids are present all year long. As the days grow shorter, the plant slows down the production of chlorophyll, and the carotenoids begin to show through. Reds and purples are not as common in fall colors. as not all trees or shrubs make anthocyanins, and they’re produced only in autumn under certain conditions.
You can add a splash of fall color to your garden whether you have a big space to fill or a little spot you want to perk up. The Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis) is a reliable medium-sized tree for street-side, garden or patio planting. The deep green leaves, with a somewhat fern-like appearance, turn bright florescent orange in the fall. It has a slow to moderate growth rate and can take little to no water during the summer once it is established. If you’re looking for lemon yellow, then consider the maidenhair tree, Gingko biloba. This graceful tree has fan-shaped leaves similar to the maidenhair fern, hence the common name. A slow growing, pyramidal-shaped tree, it can reach 35-50 feet at maturity. Not bothered by heat, insects or pests, once they reach about twenty feet tall, they only need occasional irrigation. When purchasing a Gingko, be sure to get a male tree, as female trees produce messy, foul-smelling fruit.
The black tupelo, also known as a sour gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica), is native to the eastern United States and makes a striking shade tree. The lustrous, dark green foliage don a kaleidoscope of sunset colors in the fall with yellows, oranges and scarlet contrasting with the dark gray, red-tinged bark. It’s also a moderately slow growing tree that ultimately reaches 30-50 feet, and can grow in full sun to part shade. It prefers moist, well-drained soil, but tolerates poor drainage and some drought.
If you’re more interested in flowering shrubs, the barberry family (Berberis) contains plants in a wide variety of sizes, leaf shapes and colors. The deciduous forms of these tough, spiny plants produce masses of small brightly colored flowers in spring, followed by berries in the autumn. Similarly, deciduous viburnums offer multi-seasonal interest with showy, intensely fragrant flowers in late winter to spring and brilliantly colored fall foliage and berries. A favorite is Viburnum opulus ‘Roseum,’ or the common snowball viburnum. The plump, greenish-white blooms bedeck the plant in May, and the crimson to burgundy colors of the fall leaves are a striking contrast to the dark purple berries. For a somewhat shady spot, the oak leafed hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia or pee gee hydrangea, provides conical-shaped blossoms in the spring; the large, oak-shaped foliage turns purple, orangey-bronze and red in the fall.
Now is a good time to plant deciduous trees and shrubs; the soil is still warm and the temperatures cool, allowing the plant to focus its energy on developing roots. It can also be easier on your wallet as nurseries and garden centers clear out their inventory in preparation for the holidays. If you can’t find these plants locally, Forestfarm Nurseries in Oregon carries most of them. You can order online at http://www.forestfarm.com/ Add some color to your garden now and you’ll reap your reward next fall.
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