Bald Cypress

Although very rare here, bald cypress is prominent enough in the South to be the state tree of Louisiana.

There are very few coniferous (cone bearing) trees that are deciduous; and because most prefer cooler winters, very few are ever seen in local gardens. The bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, happens to be one of the few deciduous coniferous trees that really could be more popular than it is, since it seems to be right at home in mild climates. It is native to coastal riparian regions from Maryland to Florida to eastern Texas, and up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers as far as Indiana.

The soft foliage resembles that of coastal redwood, but is more finely textured. It is still mostly light green, but will soon be turning paper bag brown before trees go bare. The tiny individual leaves are shaped like flat pine needles, and are not much more than half an inch long. The ruddy or grayish brown bark is finely shaggy.

In the wild, mature bald cypress trees can get more than a hundred feet tall with trunks more than five feet wide. Some of the largest trees have buttressed trunks as wide as fifteen feet! Trees in swamps develop distended growth from their roots known as ‘knees’, which can stand several feet tall! Fortunately, bald cypress rarely get half as tall or develop such massive trunks locally.

Bald cypress is one of the few deciduous conifers; so the finely textured light green foliage will soon be gone.

Silk Tree

Silk tree leaves are bipinnately compound.

Resiliency is typically an attribute. It is how silk tree, Albizia julibrissin, adapts to various urban landscapes. Unfortunately, it is also how it naturalized within a few ecosystems of North America. It grows easily from seed, whether or not it is appropriate to where it does so. Many naturalized specimens somehow find good situations in which to grow though.

With good exposure, most mature silk trees develop rather low but broad canopies. They have potential to grow taller than forty feet, but if not competing with taller trees, may stay half as tall. Their arching limbs flare elegantly outward in low mounding form. Their finely textured foliage provides appealingly uniform shade that is neither too dark nor too light.

The lacy and bipinnately compound leaves of silk tree are between half a foot and a foot long. Each leaf divides into as many as a dozen pairs of pinnae (leaflets). These pinnae divide into about twice as many pairs of pinnulae (leaflets of leaflets). Such minute foliar components disintegrate during autumn defoliation, and can disappear into groundcover.

The pink and fluffy summer bloom can actually be messier than the deciduous foliage. It does not disintegrate as it falls, so may accumulate on top of vegetation below. Cultivars generally bloom with richer pink color, although at least one blooms with white. ‘Summer Chocolate’ exhibits richly bronzed foliage that contrasts strikingly with pastel pink bloom.

Black Oak

Not many native deciduous trees turn orange or brownish red in autumn like California black oak can.

Though native mostly to the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges between San Francisco and Oregon, California black oak, Quercus kelloggii, also inhabits isolated colonies in lower mountains as far north as the southern half of the Oregon Coast, and as far south as San Diego County. It actually occupies more area than any other hardwood tree in California. Wild trees competing in forests can get more than a hundred feet tall and live for five centuries. Well exposed urban trees may take their first century to eventually get about half as tall with trunks as wide as four feet.

Even while young, California black oak is a distinguished tree, with a broadly rounded canopy and elegantly arching limbs. The smooth silvery bark of young trees eventually becomes dark and uniformly checked with maturity. The distinctive deeply lobed leaves are about five inches long, and turn gold, soft orange or even brownish red before falling in autumn.

London Plane

London plane might resemble Norway maple.

The parents of this unintentional hybrid are supposedly American sycamore and Oriental sycamore. No one really knows. London plane, Platanus X acerifolia, appeared within a private collection in London at the middle of the Seventeenth Century. It became popular there two centuries later, through the Victorian Era, because of its resilience to pollution.

Mature London plane trees might be taller than a hundred feet. Few here are old enough to be much taller than sixty feet though. Regardless, defoliation of such grand deciduous trees might be overwhelming through autumn. Foliar tomentum (fuzz) can be surprisingly irritating while raking too much foliage. Autumn color is unimpressively brownish yellow. The specific epithet ‘acerifolia’ translates to ‘maple foliage’, because the foliage resembles that of Norway maple.

London plane remains among the most common of street trees. It really is commendably adaptable to inhospitable urban situations. However, it is not perfect. Its roots eventually displace pavement. The foliar canopies can eventually grow disproportionately broad for compact urban parkstrips. For some people, the foliar tomentum can be a major allergen.

Sweetgum

Sweetgum is impressively colorful for autumn.

This might be the most spectacular and most reliable of autumn foliage available locally. Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, begins to develop a brilliant blend of yellow, orange and red in response to the earliest mild chill of autumn. It defoliates slowly to retain much of its colorful foliage through the earliest rain and wind of winter, and perhaps even later.

Sweetgum leaves are palmate, and about four inches wide, with five pointed lobes. One very rare cultivar has hierarchically lobed leaves, with lobes on lobes. Another has blunt lobes. Some cultivars as well as individual trees favor particular foliar colors for autumn. ‘Burgundy’ exhibits more dark red color than typical, and retains foliage later than typical.

Mature trees can grow fifty feet tall, but are not very broad. They can get taller and lankier to compete with other tall trees. Their upright form conforms to grove arrangement within large landscapes and parks. Unfortunately, their aggressive roots can displace concrete. Their branches can be structurally deficient. Their spiky and hard fruit can be obnoxious.

Sweetgum

Sweetgum colors with minimal chill.

The excellent and remarkably brilliant shades of yellow, orange, red and burgundy of the foliage in autumn suggest that sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, is from New England. However, it is native between New Jersey, Florida and the eastern edge of Texas, as well as isolated forests of Central America. It actually prefers mild climates to where winters are too cold. Mature trees are generally columnar (relatively narrow) and less than fifty feet tall where well exposed, but can get more than twice as tall to compete in forests.

Unfortunately, mature sweetgum trees can be somewhat problematic in urban gardens. Limbs are often weak enough to break in wind, or if they get too heavy from the weight of their own foliage. Also, the abundant round seed pods are outfitted with nasty spikes, like little maces almost two inches wide. They are painful to step on, and can actually be quite hazardous.

American Dogwood

Before foliage develops, this American dogwood is a cloud of profuse pink bloom in a partly shaded and sheltered garden.

The state tree of Missouri produces the state flower of North Carolina, which are both the state tree and state flower of Virginia, but no so exploited by the state that it seems to be named for! The American dogwood, Cornus florida, is such a classic American tree that last year, young trees were given to Japan to commemorate the gift of Japanese flowering cherry trees from Japan a century earlier.

Profuse early spring bloom is not what it seems to be. Tight clusters of minute flowers would not be much to look at, but are surrounded by four big white bracts (modified leaves) that really put on an impressive show before green leaves develop. Many modern varieties have pink or nearly brick red bracts, and a few get variegated foliage as bloom dissipates. Foliage can get quite colorful just before it falls in autumn.

In the wild, American dogwoods are ‘understory’ trees that are happiest in forests of larger trees that shelter them from harsh sun exposure and drying wind. In relatively arid western climates, they want rich soil, regular watering and partial shade at least after noon. They are sensitive to reflected glare and wind, as well as alkalinity and salinity. (Too much fertilizer will roast the foliage.) Since American dogwood trees rarely get more than fifteen feet tall in cultivation, they are proportionate to sheltered atriums. Wild trees do not get much taller than thirty feet.

Curly Willow

Curly willow is also corkscrew willow.

They start out simply enough, as weirdly twisted bare stems in fancy floral arrangements. By the time the last flowers fade, the submerged parts of these bare stems develop roots and perhaps leaves. These now rooted cuttings then graduate into pots or gardens. Most curly willow, Salix matsudana ‘Tortuosa’, is therefore unplanned. It is rare from nurseries.

Mature trees should not get much taller than fifteen feet, with awkwardly irregular branch structure. Regular pruning and grooming eliminates congested and structurally deficient growth. Alternatively, pollarding or coppicing during winter dormancy promotes vigorous growth. Healthy trees can drop overburdened limbs, and might live for only twenty years. 

Curly willow, which is also corkscrew willow, is popular more for distinctively curly stems than as a small deciduous shade tree. Specimens that provide such stems for cutting do not need to be very big. If cut and dried while dormant during winter, stems can not grow roots in water. Nor will they require plucking to remove their leaves, which are also curly.

Collect Fallen Leaves Before Winter

Fallen leaves can clog drainage.

The problem with all the colorful foliage that adorns so many of the deciduous trees in autumn is that it does not stay in the trees too long. Combined with all the other less colorful deciduous foliage, as well as whatever evergreen foliage happens to fall this time of year, it will become quite a mess by winter. Rainy and windy winter weather will only make it messier by bringing down even more foliage!

Contrary to popular belief, many evergreen trees are just as messy as deciduous trees are. Instead of dropping all their foliage in autumn or winter, most evergreens drop smaller volumes of foliage throughout the year. The mess is less obvious since it sneaks up slowly, but can accumulate over a few months. Only a few evergreen trees drop much of their foliage in more obvious seasonal phases.

Debris from evergreen trees is actually more likely to be a problem for plants below. Pines, cypresses, firs, spruces, cedars, eucalypti and many other evergreen trees produce natural herbicides that inhibit the emergence of seedlings of plants that would compete with them in the wild. In landscape situations, this unfortunately interferes with lawns, ground covers and annuals. Besides walnuts and deciduous oaks, not many deciduous trees use this tactic.

Regardless, any foliar debris can be a problem if allowed to accumulate too long. Large leaves, like those of sycamore, can accumulate and shade lawn, ground cover and some dense shrubbery, and can eventually cause mildew and rot. Finely textured foliage, like that of jacaranda or silk tree, can sift through most ground covers to the soil below, but can still make a mess on lawn.

Before rainy weather, debris should be cleaned from gutters and downspouts. Because some foliage continues to fall through winter, gutters will likely need to be cleaned again later. Flat roofs and awkward spots that collect debris, such as behind chimneys, should also be cleaned.

Gutters at the street are more visible and accessible, so do not often accumulate enough debris to be a problem, but may need to be cleaned if they become clogged with debris washed in by the earliest rains. Fallen leaves should be raked from pavement so that it does not get dangerously slippery, or stain concrete too much.

White Alder

White alder is a sporadic native.

After a forest fire, white alder, Alnus rhombifolia, might be the first trees to regenerate into freshly deforested riparian situations. It grows quickly to exploit such an opportunity, and temporarily dominate a recovering ecosystem. Individual trees do not live for much more than half a century though. Then, they relinquish area to slower but more enduring trees.

Years ago, white alders did the same in new landscapes that needed shade. They grew fast to provide shade while preferable trees matured slowly. They subordinated and then vacated their landscapes as the preferred trees grew. Unfortunately, this technique is not so practical within municipalities that require but rarely grant permits for removal of trees. 

Although native, white alder is not prominent everywhere within its natural range. It might seem to be rare in Southern California, with only a few sporadic trees to provide seed for regeneration after a fire. Farther north, large and sustained colonies resist encroachment of other trees. Mature white alders can get forty to eighty feet tall, or taller where crowded by taller trees.