Autumn foliage color – not just trees

The maples and poplars are nearly bare, and crimson dogwood leaves blanket the front walk. The colorful foliage of Japanese maples, Chinese dogwoods, Franklinia, and Stewartia will not fall for another week or two, and the glowing yellow ginkgo can be seen from one end of the garden to the other. There is sufficient space in this garden for birch, beech, katsura, and hornbeam, a few other large trees and many smaller ones, but for more limited properties there are more compact shrubs and perennials with splendid autumn foliage.

For many years Burning Bush (Euonymous alatus, above) has been highly regarded for its dependable, and long lasting, brilliant red leaves. Today it is recommended with a cautionary note, for it is known to seed itself about, and is considered invasive in many areas. I planted burning bush many years ago along the sunny northwest border of the garden (before there was talk of invasive plants), and today in the forest a few hundred feet away a handful of seedlings have sprouted. The seedlings grow weakly in the dense shade, and pose no immediate threat in crowding out desirable natives, but there are parts of the country where the problem is considerable. 

In the dry shade of the forest’s edge I have planted Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, blooms above, and autumn foliage below), and in shade or sun it is a marvelous shrub with huge panicles of white blooms in mid-summer. The large corrugated, oak shaped leaves turn stunning shades of red and orange in late September, and persist well into November. It is not only a superb substitute for burning bush for its autumn foliage, Oakleaf hydrangea is an extraordinary garden plant, and there are large growing and more compact cultivars to fit nearly every circumstance. 

Maresi viburnum (Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’) will often turn a similar shade of red-purple, but it turns quite late, and is more variable with color of little note in some years, in particular when growing in a shaded situation.  

Walking through the garden yesterday my eye was captured by a lacecap hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Twist n Shout’, above) with red leaves standing above yellow interior leaves. I have not noticed Twist n Shout in the past, but will make note to pay closer attention in the future. I have noticed that the lacecap ‘Lady in Red’ is dependable for its red stems and autumn color.

While reds stand out in the garden there are a number of shrubs with yellow autumn foliage, though these tend to be more variable. With the extreme heat and late summer drought these have been disappointing this season, with faded color, and leaves that dropped early.

There are autumns when Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is delightful, and Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) is dependable, though not striking. This year both were disappointments.

The slow growing ginkgo is incomparable for its yellow foliage, but in my garden the golden, needle-like foliage of the perennial Blue Star (Amsonia hubrichtii, above) is quite extraordinary, and of course better suited to small gardens. Though named for the small, sky blue spring blooms, blue star is most appreciated late October into November.

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