Flowering Dogwood

Bloom like this waits for spring.

Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida has something in common with Poinsettia. The most colorful component of their bloom is not floral, but is instead foliar. What appears to be petals are colorful leaves known as bracts. Exactly four bracts surround each small cluster of tiny and unimpressive pale green real flowers. These bracts are most popularly white, but can be pink or rarely brick red.

The deciduous trees are bare now, but bloom spectacularly in early spring. Any necessary pruning should happen after bloom, and preferable after new foliage matures somewhat. Floral buds for next year are already prominent on the tips of bare twigs. Dormant pruning would eliminate some of the buds prior to bloom. For now, only minor grooming of unbudded interior growth is practical.

Mature flowering dogwood trees can be twenty feet tall, but typically stay lower. As understory trees, they prefer a bit of shelter from larger trees. Foliage can scorch if too exposed. Some cultivars have variegated foliage. All can develop vibrant orange and red foliar color for autumn, even with minimal chill. Floral debris resembles fallen leaves that fall just as new and real foliage develops.


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.

Autumn Color From Deciduous Foliage

Deciduous foliage can get delightfully colorful.

Autumn does not get cool enough locally to prevent everything from blooming. A few plants can bloom sporadically all year except only during the coolest part of winter. A few plants naturally bloom in autumn. Cool season annuals begin blooming before warm season annuals finish. Flowers can potentially provide plenty of autumn color if necessary. A mild climate can be a major advantage.

It can also be a disadvantage. Minimal chill causes deciduous foliage to start to get messy before it starts to get colorful. Some deciduous plants shed completely before getting chilled enough to develop appealing autumn color. A few others do not even get cool enough to defoliate completely. They instead retain their shabby old foliage through winter until new foliage replaces it in spring.

Nonetheless, several adaptable deciduous plants get sufficient chill to develop impressive autumn color here.

Sweetgum, Chinese pistache, flowering pear and ginkgo are likely the four best deciduous trees for autumn color locally. Sweetgum and Chinese pistache produce the most impressive ranges of vibrant colors. Flowering pear is comparable, but with less yellow, and more rich deep burgundy red. Ginkgo lacks such range of color, but develops the brightest and clearest yellow autumn color.

Boston ivy, crape myrtle and persimmon get about as colorful as sweetgum, even if incidentally to their primary duties. Crape myrtle is popular for its abundant and richly colorful bloom in summer. Persimmon is a fruit tree. Boston ivy obscures graffiti and helps muffle sound on freeway soundwalls. Cottonwood and black walnut turn bright yellow, but in the wild rather than in refined gardens.

Even for the locally mild climate, there are plenty of deciduous plants that provide foliar autumn color. Trees are the most familiar. Vines and shrubbery are also popular. Because this mild climate is marginal for some of them, color is likely to be variable from year to year. Unfortunately, some that perform satisfactorily for inland locations may perform less satisfactorily in coastal conditions.

Autumn Sage

Salvia greggii is a modest sage.

Perhaps in the wild, it blooms in autumn. Where it gets watered in home gardens, even if watered only occasionally, autumn sage, Salvia greggii, blooms all through summer as well. If pruned back severely over winter, it starts to bloom even sooner in spring. The tiny flowers are red, rose, pink, peach, very pale yellow, lavender or white. Some poplar cultivars have bi-colored flowers.

Compact autumn sage that does not get much more than a foot tall is uncommon. Larger cultivars get four feet tall and broad, with more open growth. Most get about three feet high and a bit wider. Without severe winter pruning, stems can eventually get twiggy, with sparse foliage on the exterior. The tiny aromatic leaves are less than an inch long, and visually resemble oregano.

Even though it is not native to California, autumn sage is popular for native landscaping because it does not need much water. Just like native sages, it attracts butterflies and hummingbirds.

Rainy Season



As I mentioned this morning, the first storm since spring delivered a bit more than an inch and a half of rain before dawn on Wednesday, ending the fire season. The second storm is here right now. It is expected to be followed by a continuous series of storms that will provide rain through Monday, showers through Thursday, more rain on Friday, and showers . . . forever!

It is now the rainy season.

The video above shows what rain does. It gets things wet. It is, after all, composed of water. It falls mysteriously from the sky, which, as you can plainly see, is occupied only by a mostly monochromatic gray cloud cover. Seriously! There is nothing else up there. There is no one on the roof with a hose or anything of the sort. All that water just falls from the cloud cover above.

I could not get video of individual raindrops falling. They are too small and too fast. Only a few can be seen indirectly in the video, falling in front of the water cascading from the rusted out gutter. The spots on the video are raindrops that landed on the lens, so were no longer so animate. The cascading water is, of course, an accumulation of many raindrops that fell on the roof.

Besides ending the long fire season, rain also disrupts the slim fall color season, when foliage of certain deciduous trees turns color as the weather cools in autumn. There is not much to brag about anyway. Only a few native trees are moderately colorful. More colorful exotic trees are not very popular because they do not color as well as they do where autumn weather is cooler.P91130K

Before the rain, these birches were a nice clear yellow, but were already defoliating. Their fallen leaves were as pretty on the ground as they were in the trees, but unfortunately needed to be blown. By now, there is likely more on the ground than there is in the trees, but it will need to be blown too. At least it gets to stay on the open ground in the rest of the casual landscape.P91130K+

The only tulip tree here got cool enough to defoliate before the birches this year, but not quite cool enough to color well first. It is a grand tree nonetheless. We do not expect exemplary color in autumn in our splendidly mild climate anyway. The sweetgums will compensate. They are only beginning to color, and should hold some of their foliage rather well through the weather.P91130K++

Slow Color

P91110Autumn is not much to brag about here. It supposedly got just cool enough at night for the minimal requirement of frost, at 32 degrees, but no one noticed. It has been getting to the low 80s during the day. There has been no rain yet, and none is in the forecast. As bland as such weather seems, it is not at all out of the ordinary. Autumn often arrives later than it does elsewhere.

Consequently, autumn foliar color is not much to brag about either. There are only a few trees that reliably develop good color, such as sweetgum, pistache, flowering pear, crape myrtle and maidenhair tree (ginkgo). As reliable as it is, maidenhair tree provides only bright yellow, without the oranges and reds that the others exhibit. None are exhibiting significant color just yet.

There are several other trees that have potential to develop good color, but are not as reliable about doing so. Birch can get almost as brilliant yellow as maidenhair tree does, but does not do it every year. Red oak may turn brilliant orange with a bit of brownish red mixed in, but only every few years or so. On rare occasion, even London plane (sycamore) shows off burnt orange.

Every species has a distinct personality. They each respond differently to different variables. Weather conditions that stimulate good color among flowering cherries may not stimulate good color for bigleaf maples. Dogwoods that colored so well at about the same time last year as the tulip trees, are already nearly bare after minimal color, while the tulip trees are mostly green.

Every few years, if mildly but suddenly chilled, these cottonwood develop a brighter yellow, with less blotching. With slower and drier chill this year, they are deteriorating and falling without much yellow at all.P91110+

Color Is Lacking This Autumn

41029thumbSweetgum, flowering pear and Chinese pistache are the most reliable trees for flashy autumn foliar color, especially in such mild climates. They may not seem like it this year though. After a late start, only sweetgum is coloring well. Flowering pear trees that are beginning to show color farther inland seem to lack their typical bright yellow and orange, and are showing more dark rusty red.

Like so many flowers that bloom in spring, foliar color in autumn is as variable as the weather. Temperature and humidity can either inhibit or enhance color. It is impossible to say what caused the disappointing color so far, or if foliage that colors later will be just as bland. A sudden chill could change things for Chinese pistache that are still behind schedule.

Maidenhair tree (gingko) is the best for bright yellow, but lacks any other color. Fruitless mulberry, tulip tree and various poplars can be nearly as bright yellow in a good season, and may still color well. Of the various willows, only a few color well, and they tend to be more sensitive to weather. Early rain can rot their leaves before they get much color at all.

Although elms are not known for coloring, some of the modern varieties turn remarkably bright orange. However, the few oaks that color well in colder climates turn only dingy brown locally. The few North American maples that can provide color do not hold their colored foliage very long. All sorts of trees have all sorts of personalities.

Eastern redbud, smoke tree and crape myrtle are shrubs or small trees that color as well as larger trees in autumn. Crape myrtle can be as bright yellow, orange and red as sweetgum. Some Japanese maples color better than others, and some can be quite impressive, but only if their foliage does not get roasted by warm and arid weather through summer.

Where it can be accommodated, Boston ivy is an aggressively clinging vine that provides all the remarkably colorful foliage on freeway sound-walls. It is out on the freeways for a reason though. It can ruin any other surface that it clings to.

Snowball Bush

90424Long before hydrangea blooms with its distinctively round floral trusses of abundant small flowers, the snowball bush, Viburunum opulus ‘Roseum’, shares its own unique version of similar bloom. Although the cultivar name suggests that the bloom would be pink or red, it is exclusively white. Hydrangea will bloom later, mostly in pink or red, with some in blue or lavender, and a few in white.

The snowball blooms of snowball bush are about thee inches wide, so are smaller than those of hydrangea, and do not last quite as long. They bloom early in spring, without subsequent bloom. The two or three inch long deciduous leaves might turn surprisingly vivid orange and red before defoliating in autumn. Mature specimens easily get taller than ten feet, and might reach fifteen feet.

Snowball bush eventually develops a relaxed and unrefined style that fits nicely into woodsy landscapes. Autumn foliar color is better with full sun exposure, but a bit of partial shades promotes a slightly more open branch structure that displays the spring bloom better. Pruning should be done after bloom. Snowball bush prefers somewhat regular watering and rich soil, but is not too finicky.

Rhus diversiloba / Toxicodendron diversilobum

P81209This would be a good topic for one of my rants on Wednesday, except that it is too silly for that.

Many years ago, before I started writing my gardening column for our local newspapers, my colleague Brent and I used to exchange funny newspaper gardening articles. Some were obviously not written for local climates. Some were just very inaccurate. Back then, it was done by mail, so the articles were added to anything that we happened to be sending to each other at the time. If I sent him some seeds, I would add an article or a few from the San Jose Mercury News. If he sent my cuttings, he would add an article or a few from the Los Angeles Times. They eventually became the inspiration for my gardening column, when Brent and others told me that rather than making fun of the inaccuracies of the articles, I should provide accurate articles.

One of the silliest that Brent sent to me was an otherwise well written article about star jasmine. Most of the information about it was accurate, until it got to describing the colors of the exclusively white bloom. The article explained that star jasmine bloomed in vivid shades or blue, purple, red, orange and yellow; just about every color except for white!

Well, I topped that with an article about protecting Japanese maples from theft, which sounded crazy even before reading the article. There were three recommendations. The first was to surround the subject Japanese maple with razor wire. Ah, the ambiance! The second recommendation was to dig a hole about as big as a trash can and fill it with concrete with a curved piece of rebar to make an enclosed loop on top, and then chain the subject Japanese maple to it. How about we just do without a Japanese maple in the front yard in a neighborhood where we expect it to get stolen. The third recommendation was to plant poison oak around the subject Japanese maple. Yes, good old fashioned poison oak, Rhus diversiloba, which is also known by the more descriptive Latin name of Toxicodendron diversilobum, and commonly available at . . . . some nursery . . . . somewhere. . . . You know, one of those . . . . garden centers . . . . or something.

Silly? Yes! What is sillier is that poison oak really IS available from certain nurseries that sell native species! What is even SILLIER than that incredible degree of SILLINESS is that one of the so-called landscape companies that I worked for in about 2006 actually procured some for habitat restoration outside of, but adjacent to a newly landscaped area on the banks of where the Guadalupe River flows through San Jose. Poison oak and other native vegetation needed to be eradicated for the installation of the new poison oak and associated irrigation system, because nothing is more natural than supplemental irrigation! Then, the ‘gardeners’ had to conduct regularly scheduled weed abatement so that poison oak growing from seed tossed by the pre-existing poison oak did not grow up and compete with the new poison oak in the new ‘natural’ ‘landscape’. We certainly would not want poison oak taking over the poison oak.

Okay, this is not Wednesday, so I will finish this rant.

Poison oak happens to provide some of the best orange and red autumn foliar color in our region where almost all of such color is simple yellow. Where it is out of the way and not bothering anyone, it is sometimes left to climb high into trees, where it colors almost as well as flowering pear. Yes, it is pretty, but I will not be planting any of it.P81209+

Six on Saturday: Too Much Autumn Color III – Cherries, Berries, Plums, Apples, . . . & Ginkgo


Autumn foliar color, fall color, autumn leaves or whatever you know it as; there was too much of it to fit into just six pictures. That is why I submitted two ‘Six on Saturday’ posts last week, and why this one is number ‘III’, and why there will be a number ‘IV’ right afterward. Only one reader expressed concern that submitting two posts to ‘Six on Saturday’ on the same Saturday is a violation of the rules, but I got the impression that even he did not mind. These pictures, as well as the next six, were actually taken more than a week ago, which might violate another rule. If you are seeing them now, I have not yet been prosecuted, and compelled to delete them. Much of the foliage was knocked to the ground by rain since the pictures were taken. The apple tree #4 was pruned back severely, and is now completely defoliate. The title ‘Cherries, Berries, Plums, Apples, . . . & Ginkgo’ implies that all but one are fruit trees; but they aren’t. Well, you can see what I mean.

1. Yoshino flowering cherry, which I know as ‘Akebono’, just might be the most traditional of the Japanese flowering cherries in America. It is the classic cherry blossom tree around Washington D. C.. As flashy as the bloom is, it is sterile; so the trees are fruitless. You can not see it, but the home in the background is of classic Early American architecture. It is a family home, so is too big for my taste. It would otherwise be my favorite home in the neighborhood.P8215

2. Kwanzan flowering cherry is the second most popular flowering cherry in our region. The big pink double flowers are a bit too garish for my taste, but they really are flashy! Like the Yoshino cherry, the Kwanzan cherry is fruitless.P8215+

3. American plum is not native here, but naturalized. It was and probably still is a common understock for quite a few of the stone fruits. It often grows from the roots of a stone fruit tree that got cut down to the ground. It makes small tart plums that are not much bigger than fat cherries, but not many of us use them for anything. Garden varieties of plum and cherry are naturally more desirable. I Intend to use American plum for jam, but I always get out to pick them after they have fallen to the ground and gone bad. You may have noticed that the first three subjects are of the same genus, Prunus.P8215++

4. Apple happens to do very well in our region. The old apple trees on the farm are remnants of an old orchard. Others in the neighborhood are from old farms. This one is on the edge of a sidewalk where it was not likely planted intentionally. It likely grew from a seed from a discarded apple core. It does happen to make apples, but they are no good. I just cut this tree back severely. If the apples are still no good next year, the tree might get cut down.P8215+++

5. Ginkgo is an ornamental tree here. Because those of us who do not want the fruit find the stinky aroma and mess to be objectionable, garden varieties are all male, and therefore fruitless. However, in some cultures, ginkgo is grown both for fruit, and for the nuts within the fruit. There are a few female trees in older neighborhoods here. They were grown from seed before all male garden varieties were developed. Back then, there was no way to determine the gender of a ginkgo tree until it started to develop fruit . . . or hopefully didn’t.P8215++++

6. Barberry is strictly ornamental. I have never actually seen a bar’berry’ fruit. This particular unknown cultivar happens to be bronzed, with very dark foliage that turns bright yellow and orange for autumn. It is very thorny!P8215+++++

This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate: