Some uncommon trees and shrubs have lots to offer in fall
Say “fall color” and many minds turn to sugar maple. Aspen, hickory and tupelo are among other well-known trees that fuel autumn’s figurative flames.
Ask about attractive bark, and many gardeners will think of white birch.
But a number of lesser-known trees and shrubs can also contribute to the outdoor show, and — unlike sugar maple and white birch — are adept at doing so in the face of adversity. That is, they grow well in spite of soil that is too wet or too dry, or weather that’s uncommonly hot, and they’re unbothered by pests.
A COUPLE OF RESILIENT HYDRANGEAS
Two hydrangeas are in this category. The first, oakleaf hydrangea, is usually planted because of its summer transformation into a giant candelabra holding 10-inch, pyramidal clusters of white flowers upright at the ends of its stems. This hydrangea is native to the Southeast, and northern gardeners — myself included — have shied away from this shrub because its flower buds often winterkill, even though the rest of the plant is quite hardy.
But oakleaf hydrangea would be well worth planting just for its foliage: The lobed leaves are dark green through summer, and then ignite to a striking burgundy come fall. This fast-growing shrub does well even in dry soil. And the flower heads, when they do develop, persist well into autumn, adding to the show.
The other noteworthy hydrangea is called Praecox, and it’s another variety of the species that gives us the more commonly planted PeeGee hydrangea. Like PeeGee, Praecox is a hardy shrub growing about 10 feet high, blooming in midsummer, and livening fall with its persistent, dried, papery brown flower heads. But while PeeGee’s ice cream cone shape and full flower heads give it a rather formal air, Praecox is less stiff in overall form and in the fullness of its flower heads.
LEAVES AREN’T FALL’S ONLY SHOW
Then there are plants that color fall with something besides their leaves. Seven-son flower, which first arrived here from China in 1980, graces this season with its rose magenta seeds. It grows as a large shrub or small tree up to about 20 feet high.
Another plant, goldenrain tree, has been grown on this side of the Pacific for longer, and is generally most flamboyant in summer, when it’s covered with small yellow flowers. However, the variety Rose Lantern flowers late, in September, and then goes on to an encore performance by dangling pink seed capsules, like Chinese lanterns, from its branches.
Sugar maple isn’t the only maple with flamboyant autumn color. Japanese maples are valued as much in fall as in other seasons, except that Japanese maples are not generally tough plants. Enter Korean maple, also called purplebloom maple. This maple is similar in appearance to Japanese maple, but is more cosmopolitan and a bit more upright. In fall, the leaves of Korean maple turn a mix of orange and scarlet.
Twisted-bark maple, also called threeflower maple, is another Asian maple. Like Korean maple, it grows to about 30 feet high. Fall color varies from bright red to orange to yellow, from plant to plant.
Another Asian maple, paperbark maple, gets some red in its leaves. The real show, though, is in its bark, which looks like polished copper and naturally curls back in paper-thin sheets.
So go ahead and be the first on your block to plant oakleaf hydrangea, threeflower maple, seven-son flower or any of the other plants mentioned. You’ll be delighted — and not just in fall. Each plant also earns its keep in the other seasons. The bark of twisted-bark maple, for instance, peels off in decorative ash gray strips, most evident in winter. Seven-son flower bears panicles of small white flowers in spring. Enjoy the bark of paperbark maple every day of the year.