Chrysanthemum

Chrysanthemums are just right for autumn.

Mild autumns and arid summers keep chrysanthemums on a different schedule here than in most other regions. They can get planted in spring to grow through summer and bloom through autumn; but because they can take a bit of work, they are more often planted while blooming in autumn. Although commonly grown as autumn annuals, they are perennials that can regenerate next spring, grow through summer, and bloom even better the following autumn.

Centuries of development in Japan have produced more varieties of chrysanthemums than can be documented. There are really some weird types grown for cut flowers or by hobbyists. Garden varieties are mostly limited to simpler flowers that do not need much thinning or staking. Color ranges through all sorts of hues and shades of yellow, orange, red, pink and bronze, as well as a few purplish colors, cream and white. Many have yellow centers. The aromatic foliage is alluring to some, but objectionable to others.

Ginkgo

Ginkgo is turning clear bright yellow.

Where autumn chill is minimal, the best and brightest yellow autumn color is that of the ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba. Some know it at the maidenhair tree. Except for older trees that produce messy and stinky fruit, it is a notably clean tree. Perhaps it is too clean. It drops nothing all year, but can defoliate too soon once it develops it striking autumn color. Minimal chill actually prolongs the process.

Ginkgo is dioecious, with separate genders. Modern cultivars for landscapes are male, so produce no obnoxious fruit. Female cultivars that produce nuts and fruits are not commonly available in nurseries locally. (As objectionable as their aroma is, the nuts and fruits are edible.) Some people may be allergic to the pollen of mature male trees. Many mature trees predate modern cultivars.

Trees are somewhat slender and perhaps sparse while young. They develop a broader canopy as they age. Trees can get more than fifty feet tall, with sculpturally irregular branch structure. Foliar venation radiates outward from the petioles. Leaves, which are about two or three inches long, therefore have the shape of fishtails. Leaves on current season stems are cloven into paired lobes.

Abyssinian Gladiolus

Abyssinian gladiolus might still be blooming.

Summer bulbs and bulb like perennials bloom after spring bulbs. They therefore prefer later planting. Abyssinian gladiolus, Gladiolus murielae, is likely unavailable in nurseries while spring bulbs are seasonable. Their bulbs should be obtainable and ready for planting later, while other summer bulbs are in season. Abyssinian gladiolus blooms late in summer, or may still be blooming now.

Abyssinian gladiolus is more discreet than the more common hybrid gladiolus. It is also more reliably perennial. In favorable conditions, bulbs might multiply enough to be somewhat invasive. The narrow leaves stand more than two feet tall. Floral stems can be three feet tall, to loosely suspend a few white flowers with garnet red centers. Each mildly fragrant flower is about two inches wide.

The bulbs, which are technically corms, prefer organically rich soil that drains well. Digging and storing them through the locally mild winters is unnecessary. After many years, established colonies of bulbs might migrate upward and closer to the surface of the soil. Digging dormant bulbs that have gotten too shallow to stand upright while foliated, and burying them deeper, improves stability.

Angelonia

This annual can actually be perennial.

Angelonia is one of those warm season annuals that can actually survive through winter as a pernnial to bloom again next spring. It may even want to continue to bloom untill frost. The flowers can be blue, purple, red, pink or white, and look something like small snapdragon flowers. Most have spots or stripes of an alternate color or two in their throats. Some modern varieties have fragrant flowers. Plants can get a foot or two tall, and almost as wide. In sheltered spots, angelonia can be cut back as soon as it starts to look tired in autumn. Exposed plants might be happier if cut back significantly later, as winter ends. Old growth may be unsightly for a while, but can protect interior stems and roots from frost. Besides, pruning stimulates new growth that will be more susceptible to subsequent frost.

Valley Oak

Valley oak is the grandest oak.

From the northern end of the Sacramento Valley to Santa Catalina Island, valley oak, Quercus lobata, is as Californian as Valley Girl. It inhabits mixed riparian forests and low hillsides up to about 2,000 feet, but prefers alluvial valley meadows in between. Although unpopular for landscaping, it sometimes self sows into home gardens. New landscapes sometimes develop around old trees.

Valley oak is one of the biggest of oaks, and the tallest oak of North America. Mature trees can be more than a hundred feet tall, and several centuries old. Trunks may be more than ten feet wide. Such big trees make big messes of acorns and deciduous foliage, which shed for weeks. Unfortunately, old valley oaks within new landscapes are susceptible to spontaneous limb failure and rot.

Where space is sufficient, new valley oaks are for future generations. They develop their distinctively sculptural branch structure slowly through several decades. If irrigation is not excessive, roots are remarkably complaisant. The evenly furrowed gray bark is rustically distinguished. The elegantly lobed leaves are about three inches long and half as wide. Yellowish autumn color is subdued.

Pumpkin

Brightly colored pumpkins ripen in autumn.

Actually, it is a fruit; a rather BIG fruit. It happens to be one of the more familiar of winter squash, but is not too commonly eaten. Although it makes excellent pie, and provides edible seeds and flowers, pumpkin is more popularly known as jack-o’-lanterns or Cinderella’s ride to the ball. Pumpkin is not for every garden, since each big and coarsely foliated annual vine needs regular watering, rich soil and considerable space to grow all through summer to produce only one or two big fruit in autumn.

Most pumpkins are big and round, and have smooth and bright orange skin. Those grown for jack-o’-lanterns are brighter orange, and not quite as meaty. Those grown for pie are often a bit smaller and meatier, with a rustier orange color. The biggest pumpkins get too huge to move easily, but lack flavor. The flavors and densities of many weird modern varieties are as variable as the green, red, pink, yellow and white hues of their skins. Some pumpkins have been developed specifically for their seeds, which are known as pepitas, or are used for production of pumpkin seed oil.

Kahili Ginger

Kahili ginger blooms as summer ends.

It is not the ginger that is so popular for culinary purposes, but it is the most popular for home gardens in the West. Kahili ginger, Hedychium gardnerianum, is so vigorous and easy to grow that it has potential to be invasive in ideal situations. Fortunately, it does not produce many of its sticky seeds locally. It therefore migrates primarily by dispersing rhizomes, which are not noxiously fast.

The delightfully fragrant bloom begins late in summer, and will finish soon. As many as forty small pale yellow and red flowers radiate from each cylindrical floral truss. Blooms stand neatly vertical, even if the stems supporting them lean. As cut flowers, they last only for a few days. Deadheading after bloom eliminates unwanted seed (if that is a concern), and unclutters the tidy foliage below.

However, with or without deadheading, the lush foliage is only temporary after bloom. It deteriorates as the weather cools through autumn. Cutting the herbaceous canes to the ground before they get too unsightly will expose some of the thick rhizomes. New canes will grow a few feet tall next spring and summer. On the canes, each leaf extends in the opposite direction of the leaf below it.

Tree Of Heaven

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Tree of Heaven or tree of Hell?

‘A Tree Grows In Brooklyn’ documents the resiliency and invasiveness of the common but typically undesirable tree of Heaven, Ailanthus altissima. Once a single female tree get established, the extremely prolific seeds get everywhere, including cracks in concrete. The resulting seedlings conquer wherever they are not dug out. If cut down, they just resprout from the roots.

Male trees smell horrible while blooming for about a month in spring or summer. They are pollinated by flies, so naturally smell like what flies like. The tiny yellowish or tan flowers hang on panicles that can be a foot and a half long. Female blooms are not as big, prolific or objectionably fragrant. However, stems, leaves and all other parts of both genders smell rotten when handled.

Tree of Heaven, which has earned the alternative names of ‘tree of Hell’, ‘stink tree’, ‘ghetto elm’ and ‘ghetto palm’, is no longer a tree that gets planted by choice. It is typically a tree that plants itself, and on rare occasion, happens to grow into a good situation. They should not be allowed to overwhelm more desirable trees, or get too close to concrete or other damageable features.

Young trees grow very fast to about forty feet tall. Older and slower trees do not get much taller, although sheltered trees can get twice as tall, with elegant gray bark. They do not live much more than fifty years. The big pinnately compound leaves are surprisingly pretty. On vigorous shoots, individual leaves can get as long as two and a half feet, with leaflets as long as six inches.

Glossy Abelia

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Arching boughs of pink abelia blossoms.

With indiscriminate pruning, glossy abelia, Abelia X grandiflora, will never develop its natural form, with elegantly long and thin stems that arch gracefully outward. Sadly, almost all get shorn into tight shrubbery or hedges that rarely bloom. If only old stems get selectively pruned out as they get replaced by fresh new stems, mature shrubs can get eight feet tall and twelve feet wide.

Against their bronzy green foliage, the tiny pale pink flowers that bloom all summer have a rustic appeal. In abundance, they can be slightly fragrant. The tiny leaves are not much more than an inch long. Vigorous young canes that shoot nearly straight out from the roots slowly bend from the weight of their bloom and foliage as they mature.

Partial shade is not a problem for glossy abelia, but will inhibit bloom somewhat. Young plants want to be watered regularly. Old plants are not nearly so demanding, and can survive with notably less water. If alternating canes is too much work to restore old and neglected plants, all stems can be cut back to the ground at the end of winter. New growth develops quickly.

Quince

Quince fresh from coastal Santa Cruz!

The function of this formerly popular fruit tree has changed significantly to adapt to modern horticulture. The big but hard fruit of quince, Cydonia oblonga, is less perishable than the firmest pears or apples. Without canning or freezing, it lasts through winter in cool cellars. It also provides pectin for jellies of fruits that lack it. However, quince fruit is too hard to eat fresh, so should be cooked.

As food storage became less important, quince became less popular than more flavorful apples and pears, which are edible while fresh. Pectin is obtainable from apple cores and skins, or from supermarkets. However, quince are not completely absent from home gardens. They are now the unseen but common dwarfing understocks that limit the size of pear trees for suburban gardens.

The big lemony yellow fruits that are ripening now may look like very lumpy pears or apples. The largest sorts get as big as small cantaloupes. Developing fruit and new foliage are distinctly fuzzy. Fuzz can be polished off of alluringly aromatic mature fruit. Delightfully pale pink flowers are mostly obscured by new foliage in spring. The deciduous rounded leaves are two or three inches long.

The biggest of quince trees, which are very different from ornamental flowering quince, might get as high and wide as twenty feet.