New England is known worldwide for its fall color. People swarm here from all over, largely to see the color of our sugar maples. As I senior citizen, I am legally entitled to drive around at 25 mph, holding up traffic and enjoying every brilliant red tree I see. But I rarely do — I’m too busy in the garden, most of the time. But there is a lot more to see than maple trees.
For color, I really enjoy the leaves of oaks and American beech. They hold onto their leaves much longer than the maples, often long into winter. Why is that? Probably because they have only migrated north after the last Ice Age, and where they came from — the American South — they did not have to drop leaves in the fall. That’s one theory I have read, anyway.
On sunny fall days, the yellow leaves of beeches just glow. I enjoy them in the woods or alongside the road, but do not plant beeches or recommend them to others. There is a disease caused by the Neonectria fungus that is spread by scale insects. It mars their smooth gray bark and eventually kills the trees. So, I advise enjoying them where you see them in the woods. Yes, there are systemic poisons you could apply to kill the scale insects and perhaps hold off the decline of an existing tree, but I don’t want poisons in my landscape.
Oaks vary considerably in their fall color. Deep reds, purples and browns are often mixed with reds, depending on the locale, soil and species. Yellows and greens are often displayed on leaves, too.
One of the great features of oaks is their stamina: The “George Washington Oak” was only recently declared dead — at the age of 600 years. It grew in Bernards, New Jersey, and grew to have a trunk circumference of 18 feet and reach 100 feet tall. Oaks routinely live to be 300 years old if not abused by soil compaction and urban smog. Yet, they are relatively fast growing when young: the pin oak can grow 12 to 15 feet in five to seven years.
Although I am tremendously keen on promoting native trees and shrubs, I do believe we can have a few imports, and one of my favorites for fall color is a large shrub call disanthus (Disanthus cercidifolius). It is listed as a Zone 5 plant, but I have had one in my Zone 4 garden for at least 10 years. Mine is now nearly 8 feet tall and wide. In the fall, the leaves turn a brilliant purplish red, as good as or better than that dreaded invasive, burning bush (Euonymus alatus), that was so popular before it was listed as an invasive. In October some years (but not every year), my disanthus bush has tiny pink-purple blossoms that you will only notice if looking for them. They come right out of the bark, without stems.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is one of the few native trees that flower in the fall. It is an understory tree that will grow in shade, partial shade or full sun. It has yellow fall foliage which pretty much obscures the yellow blossoms until leaf drop in October or November. Then, the blossoms become prominent. The blossoms have four strap-like, curly petals less than an inch across. Witch hazel usually has many, many blossoms.
Scientists have only recently discovered what pollinates witch hazel. Bees and other pollinators are no longer buzzing around when they bloom. But witch hazel produces nectar …….