Bulletproof list for autumn colour

Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author

Shopping is often a traumatic experience for most men, because no matter what they buy (on their own), it never seems to be quite right.

I see evidence of this wherever I go – from frantic men in the grocery aisles, phoning home to make sure they purchase the ‘approved’ brands, to bewildered (and embarrassed) men in the feminine hygiene section of London Drugs, scanning the myriad of strange, hitherto unknown products (wings, no wings … ) with a blank expression on their face. They usually end up taking several different packages just to hedge their bets and save them some grief when they get home.

Personally, I don’t think shopping should be this difficult, and since I sell plants, I thought I would make it easier for you to choose some seasonal shrubs and trees – such as those that your wife, mother or girlfriend have been pointing out to you (in other people’s gardens) for the past few weeks.

This is, in fact, a bulletproof list of plants guaranteed to provide you with spectacular autumn tones, regardless of how rotten the weather may be – trees and shrubs that you will point to in your future garden and proudly say, “I bought that.”

So without further ado, here is your easy to find fall colour list.

Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’ (syn. ‘Senkaki’) – An amazing cultivar of Japanese maple with deep coral-red new shoots and juvenile bark, that intensifies in winter. Coral Bark Maple needs near perfect drainage, so you are definitely going to have to avoid wet soils or consider creating a raised bed for it.

The butter yellow autumn foliage also nicely compliments the brilliant stems. Grows 6m tall and about 4.5m wide. Hardy to Zone 6.

Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’ – Burning Bush is aptly named as this seemingly mundane green-leaved shrub bursts into a vibrant rose-red with the onset of a few cool nights. This dramatic change often takes the neighbours by surprise and once the leaves drop, the winged stems (corky ridges) and reddish-orange berries continue the show.

The dwarf form, ‘Compactus’, has better density but can still grow over 1.5m tall. Hardy to Zone 3.

Acer rubrum ‘Sun Valley’ – All of the Red Maples, or x freemanii hybrids (Acer rubrum x Acer saccharinum) have excellent fall colour, with some common finds being ‘October Glory’, ‘Bowhall’ (columnar form) and ‘Scarlet Sentinel’.

I was recently introduced to ‘Sun Valley’ by Stewart Jaques of Specimen Trees Wholesale Nurseries, who was kind enough to drive me out in the field to see it. It has probably the most brilliant orange-red or scarlet I have ever seen on an Acer rubrum, with the colouring quite consistent throughout the crown.

This cross of ‘Red Sunset’ and ‘Autumn Flame’ is a male clone, so there are no messy seeds. It also tolerates our slightly moist, acidic soils and only grows 9-10.5m tall and 6-7.5m wide. Hardy to Zone 5.

Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’ (syn. ‘Bailtiger’) – This cultivar of Staghorn Sumac features finely-cut compound foliage (held on fuzzy pink stems) that emerges chartreuse, maturing to a brilliant gold in summer. Fall brings an explosion of scarlet, orange and yellow autumn tones often presented in layers, giving this plant an almost 3-D look.

This drought tolerant (once established) multi-stemmed shrub is also not as invasive as its suckering counterparts, maturing at about 1.8m tall and wide. Hardy to Zone 4.

Acer palmatum ‘Osakazuki’ – One of the best Japanese maples for consistent autumn colour, provided it is grown in part to full sun. The deep green summer foliage has seven highly tapered lobes and shifts to a spectacular fire engine red with the onset of cooler weather. ‘Osakazuki’ was a 1993 RHS Award of Garden Merit winner and is a little more vigorous than most Japanese maples, growing 6-7.5m tall and 4.5 to 6m wide. Hardy to Zone 6.

A few other good choices to enquire about at your local garden centre would include Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’ (Purpleleaf Grape), Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple), Hamamelis ‘Jelena’ (Witch Hazel), Liquidambar styraciflua (Sweetgum) and Viburnum dentatum ‘Blue Muffin’, which actually has red autumn foliage.

Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author. Email him at hebe_acer@hotmail.com.

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• Mike has a new story – Thinking Like a Salmon –  on his garden blog at www.soulofagardener.wordpress.com and his plant selection site www.mikesgardentop5plants.wordpress.com is full of autumn colour selections for you to peruse.

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