There are not many trees that are as reliable for strikingly bright and clear yellow autumn foliar color as the maidenhair tree, Gingko biloba, is, even in mild coastal climates. The distinctive leaves flare out like fish tails, each with a prominent cleft that divides it into two wide lobes. (The species name ‘biloba’ means ‘two lobed’.) Some cultivars lack foliar clefts, have narrower leaves, or even develop milder yellow color in autumn. Those developed for home gardens exhibit relatively symmetrical branch structure, and are exclusively male, so can not produce the stinky fruit that some older female trees drop. (Trees grown from seed can be either male or female. Female cultivars are grown for fruit production and bonsai.) Some ancient trees in Japan, Korea and China are more than a hundred feet tall. Fortunately, maidenhair tree grows slowly enough to stay proportionate to compact urban gardens for many decades.
The color is better this year than it was when this was written three years ago. Nonetheless, foliar color here is not as impressive as it is where weather is already cooler.
After reading so much about the exquisite foliar color that most everyone else in the Northern Hemisphere gets this time of year, I must admit, I can get rather envious of those who experience four seasons instead of just two. The abundance of spring in the Southern Hemisphere does not help. Why have I not found a garden blog from Ecuador or Indonesia so that I have something to point and laugh at? It just isn’t fair.
Well, now I have something to brag about.
I found this bright red leaf on a crepe myrtle in town. Isn’t it pretty? Go ahead, you can tell me. It is gorgeous, RIGHT? Go on; say it! Say it NOW! LOUDER!
Soon, all the foliage behind it will be turning red and orange with maybe a bit of yellow. Can you see it? I think some of those leaves are starting to consider…
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A mature persimmon tree, Diospyros kaki, is often too much of a good thing. The fruit is both big and abundant as it ripens this time of year. Much of the fruit in taller trees is out of reach. Nearly ripened but somewhat firm fruit can be picked and shared with neighbors for a while, but must be picked immediately once completely ripe. Otherwise, it falls and makes a squishy mess that can not be raked up! Nearly ripe fruit ripens easily off the tree. Individual fruits only need to be spread out in a single layer to limit molding.
‘Fuyu’ is probably the most popular variety because the ripe fruit can be eaten while still firm, or after it has gotten soft. ‘Hachiya’ produces the largest fruit, sometimes bigger than a softball; but the fruit is too astringent to eat until completely ripe. It is actually best after it is so overly ripe that it is too squishy to handle. Persimmon fruits are very bright orange. ‘Hachiya’ fruit can be slightly reddish. The foliage gets just as colorful. Typically, the foliage colors first, and then falls to reveal the fruit. This year, the fruit seems to be coloring first.
Autumn 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.
Okay; so this is neither the first, nor real autumn foliar color. It just happened to be convenient for me to get a picture of. Someone left this unfortunate Japanese maple right outside on the driveway a few years ago. It colors early from uncomfortable exposure to late summer warmth. The picture below is even more colorful, and was from even earlier in the year, last August.
Foliage that is starting to color here is nothing to brag about. Some of the older dogwoods leaves just shrivel and turn brown. I can only hope that enough newer foliage lingers to color as well as it did last year. Cottonwoods start to drop foliage while it is still green, but should eventually color to a subdued yellow before the last foliage falls. Sycamores are bland no matter how late.
There are only a few trees that reliably develop vibrant foliar color in such mild autumn weather, and only a few of such trees happen to be in our landscapes here. We lack Chinese pistache, flowering pear and ginkgo. The few sweetgum that are scattered about provide most of the foliar color here in autumn. It is still too early for them to color though. They need a bit more chill.
Flowering cherry and dogwood, which are uncommon just a short distance farther inland, happen do do quite well for us, and mostly color remarkably well in autumn. They only need a bit more time and chill. Birches are not as colorful, but are bigger and bolder, and eventually cover the ground below with delightfully yellow foliage. Boston ivy was added only earlier this year.
Native flora does not contribute much color. Bigleaf maple turns only a soft yellow. Poison oak turns rich deep red, but there is not much of it.
It is certainly not my favorite small tree. Actually, in most situations, I rather dislike it, which is why I sometimes accidentally spell it without the first ‘e’. It is a cop out; a micro tree that too often ends up where a larger and more respectable tree would be more appropriate. They are not shade trees. They are not not big enough for freeway landscapes or to be street trees on wide boulevards. They are not immune to diseases and insect infestations; and they commonly drop honeydew from aphid or scale infestation, and lose their bloom to powdery mildew. They are not ‘low-maintenance’, and really should be pruned more than they are, but will get you in trouble with the neighbors if you prune them as aggressively as they should be pruned.
They are popular because of their potential for remarkably flashy bloom, and because they do not get big enough to damage the sidewalks and curbs that they are so often planted next to. ‘Gardeners’ like them because they survive their neglect. That is no long list of attributes; but there is one more.
FALL COLOR! On a bad year, they merely turn bright yellow. This year, some are this exquisitely bright orange with a slight red blush. The various cultivars display various colors, so some are more colorful than others. They are also on different schedules, so the most colorful are not necessarily the most colorful every year. Those that colored early are already bare, but could be the most colorful next year if the weather turns cold early. A bunch in town that are also defoliating as fast as they color because of the recent rain, could be the most colorful next year if rain is delayed later than it was this year.
Boston ivy is not really ivy at all; but is more closely related to grape. Along with creeping fig, it is one of the two best vines for freeway sound-walls. It protects the walls from graffiti and muffles sound. Unlike creeping fig, which is evergreen, Boston ivy is surprisingly colorful through autumn. Unfortunately, it clings to whatever it climbs with holdfast discs, so ruins paint, stucco, and any other surface it gets a hold of.
Then there is ornamental grape, Vitis vinifera. It is about as colorful as Boston ivy, and can climb almost as aggressively to thirty feet, but lacks the damaging holdfast discs. It is nearly fruitless, which may seem like a waste of an otherwise perfectly good grape vine; but it will not make much of a mess until it defoliates. If any of the tiny fruit actually matures, it will almost certainly get eaten by birds before anyone notices.
Since it does not grip so tightly to what it climbs, ornamental grape can get rather shrubby. Outer growth can overwhelm and shade out inner growth, and can eventually produce a thicket of dead canes. Pruning back superfluous shrubby growth while bare in winter promotes more vigorous new growth the following spring and summer. Ornamental grape likes full sun exposure.
We may not get much foliar color in autumn here, but we get enough. Sweetgums do not need much cool weather to color well. They would probably have colored better and held their foliage a bit better if the weather got cooler faster, but we can not complain about what we got. Most of the crape myrtles are still completely green. Cottonwoods are defoliating, but without much color. Maples are rare here. The three best trees for color in autumn here are sweetgum, pistache and flowering pear. Of these, we happen to have several sweetgums here.
Sweetgum is not the sort of tree that I would recommend for home gardens. They are innately very likely to develop structural deficiency. By the time such problems are identified, they are difficult to correct without disfigurement. Aggressive roots are likely to displace pavement, and sometimes invade septic systems. Then there are all those nasty maces; those hard and prickly round seed pods that stick into lawns and make pavement dangerous to walk on. They are too abundant and heavy to rake away as easily as fallen leaves. There are not enough squirrels in the entire forest to take them all!
In some of our unrefined forested landscapes, where maces and falling limbs can fall into the forest without damaging anything, and roots can not reach concrete pavement, sweetgums can be allowed to go wild. (Unfortunately, most of ours happen to be near concrete within refined landscapes. That is another story.) Their tall and somewhat conical form happens to work very well with the native redwoods and Douglas firs, which provide the perfect rich green backdrop for their exquisite autumn color. Those of us who do not know better might mistake them for a native species. They look right at home here.
I prefer to call it ‘autumn’. It sounds prettier. Perhaps it even sounds a bit more exotic, like something that happens in far away climates were the seasons are more distinct, and the weather gets a bit cooler this time of year.
‘Fall’ sounds more like a simple verb. It is merely what outdated leaves do when deciduous trees no longer have use for them. Many trees in mild climates do not even bother to indulge their foliage with a bit of color first.
Exotic places like Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Kentucky get autumn. Oklahoma, Oregon and Alaska get it as well, although it is commonly mistaken for fall because the deciduous foliage of most native specie turns brown in Oklahoma, and yellow in Oregon and Alaska, with significantly less of the oranges, reds and other bright colors that are so prominent in other regions.
Rather than complain about the minimal variety of color among out native specie, and how the best color is provided by very accommodating exotic specie that color well even in our locally mild weather, I prefer to brag about how excellent the weather is through our fall. Except for the longer and cooler nights, our fall is like an extension of summer. It is often referred to as Indian summer. While others share pictures of their colorful autumn foliage, I get to share pictures of fall roses that continue blooming until frost,or even right through winter. Yes, in some regards, fall can be better than autumn.
Then, this happened. While dahlia, zinnia, black-eyed Susan and even rose continue to bloom for those whom I would otherwise shame with my superior blooms, fall moved in, and is already defoliating a few trees! Sweetgum is starting to turn orange and red, but cottonwood, box elder, various willows and other riparian trees are beginning to defoliate without much color at all. This black oak is significantly farther along. At least it turned a nice rusty brown before defoliating.
How embarrassing! I can brag neither about extended bloom through a late fall, nor the bright foliar color of autumn!
Halloween is my all time least favorite of the fake holidays. I will not elaborate on this now, but will say that the appearance of Halloween decorations as soon as the Fourth of July decorations were outdated on the fifth makes me dislike Halloween even more. Halloween is an autumn pseudoholiday. It is not meant for summer!
Autumn foliar color, or fall color, is known as such because it happens in ‘fall’ . . . or autumn. It is not meant for summer any more than Halloween is.
This little Japanese maple did not get the memo. Perhaps it thought that no one would notice if it got an early start. It was a nice bronze in spring and the early part of summer, and somehow managed to maintain good color without roasting when the mild weather so suddenly became more seasonably warm a while back, but is now turning this nice pinkish red as if it is done for the year. This picture is slightly more than week old, so this little tree has been slowing down for a while already.
I can not complain. I am actually impressed that this tree did not get roasted when the weather changed earlier. Japanese maples are susceptible to scorch in our arid climate, and the ‘lace leaf’ cultivars are the most sensitive. More resilient foliage, including English laurel cherry, got roasted.
What will this Japanese maple look like in autumn? I can not predict. It would be nice if it held the premature color through autumn and defoliated on schedule in winter. It might defoliate as prematurely as it colored, leaving it bare part way through autumn. The bark could scald if too exposed while the sun is still high and warm. The weather will determine what happens next.