Dormancy And Defoliation Are Advantageous

Kahili ginger is finished blooming, and should get cut back once the foliage succumbs to frost.

Many plants are deciduous in autumn and winter, which means that they defoliate or die back, and then refoliate or regenerate in spring. Many others are evergreen, which simply means that they are always foliated through all seasons. What many people do not realize is that evergreen plants replace their foliage just like deciduous plants do. They just do not do it in such distinct phases of defoliation, dormancy and refoliation.

Tropical plants like cannas and some of the various begonias really have no need for formal defoliation, since they are from climates that lack winter. In the wild, they continually and systematically shed old stems as they produce new stems. Locally, they tend to shed more than they grow during late autumn and winter. The large types of begonias tend to keep their canes for so many years that it is not so obvious. Where winters are colder, cannas freeze to the ground, only to regenerate from their thick rhizomes as winter ends.

Zonal geraniums may seem rather tired this time of year for the opposite reason. They expect late autumn weather to include frost that would kill them back to the ground where they would stay relatively dormant until warmer weather after winter. Just because their foliage is instead evergreen through winter does not mean that it should be. It lingers and often becomes infested with mildew and rust (fungal diseases) that proliferate in humid autumn weather.

However, zonal geraniums need not be pruned back just yet. Even if they eventually get damaged by frost, pruning should be delayed so that the already damaged older foliage and stems can shelter the even more sensitive new growth as it emerges below. They can get cut back after frost would be likely.

Evergreen pear can get very spotty once the warm weather runs out because the same damp and cool weather that inhibits its growth also promotes proliferation of the blight that damages and discolors the foliage. The damaged foliage eventually gets replaced as new foliage emerges in spring, but will remain spotty and discolored until then. Photinia does not get as spotty, but holds blighted foliage longer into the following summer. Ivy can be temporarily damaged by a visually similar blight.

Collect Fallen Leaves Before Winter

Falling leaves will soon be accumulating in gutters.

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.

Deciduous Trees Defoliate Through Autumn

Too many fallen leaves get messy.

September 22 was the equinox. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, days will get slightly shorter as nights will get slightly longer. The intensity of the sunlight will diminish as the sun moves farther to the south. The weather will of course get cooler. In this particular climate, the rainy season will begin. Deciduous plants, as well as some evergreen plants, will respond accordingly to the changes.

Deciduous plants defoliate as they go dormant for part of the year. A few defoliate through hot and dry summer weather. Otherwise, almost all deciduous plants defoliate for dormancy through cool and stormy winter weather. They are more resilient without foliage that is sensitive to both frost and wind. While days are short and sunlight is diminished, foliage would not be very active anyway.

The foliage of many deciduous plants gets remarkably colorful during defoliation. Sweetgum, pistache and ginkgo are famously colorful. However, many deciduous plants, such as valley oak and silver maple, are not impressively colorful. Regardless, all deciduous plants that defoliate for winter will eventually start to do so, or have started already. Several evergreen plants shed debris too.

Gravity is a force that is more reliable than weather. It pulls foliar debris downward onto roofs, roadways, decks, patios, lawns and whatever happens to be below deciduous trees.

The timing of defoliation is ironic. Gutters and downspouts that were empty all summer now collect debris as the rainy season begins. They may need cleaning more than once if deciduous trees above defoliate slowly. While patios and decks get less use, they need more raking to avoid staining. Fallen leaves promote rot in turf grass and ground covers, and inhibit penetration of sunlight.

At this time of year, it is difficult to believe that evergreen trees are generally messier than deciduous trees. Deciduous trees tend to defoliate only once annually, although some drop bloom or fruit separately. Evergreen trees drop about as much debris, but do so for a longer season or continuously throughout the year.

Redtwig Dogwood

Colorful bark for the wintry landscape.

Most dogwoods are popular for spectacular white or pink spring bloom prior to foliation. Redtwig dogwood, Cornus sericea, is an odd one though. It is a ‘dog’wood that is appropriately grown for colorful twig ‘bark’. It blooms later than other dogwoods, and after foliation. The one to two inch wide trusses of tiny pale white flowers lack the flashy bracts that make other dogwoods so colorful.

Another difference is that, unlike more familiar dogwoods, redtwig dogwood naturally grows as a shrubby riparian thicket rather than as a small tree. Long limber branches can grow to more than fifteen feet high only by leaning into other trees or shrubbery. In home gardens, they typically get coppiced or pollarded just before foliating in spring, to develop twiggy growth for color next winter.

After a bit of autumn chill and defoliation, young stems of well exposed wild redtwig dogwood are a delightful glossy ruddy brown. Twigs of garden varieties are richer cinnamon red, rusty orange, soft yellow, orange blushed pale yellow, or yellowish green. Color is subdued by shade. Some cultivars have variegated foliage. Autumnal foliar color is more impressive in more severe climates.

Deciduous Evergreens

P91201Well, that is certainly a contradiction of terms. One might say it is an oxymoron. Decades ago, it really was how we classified what we now know more simply as ‘deciduous conifers’. There are not many of them. Ginkgo is a gymnosperm like conifers are, but is not really a conifer. Otherwise, there are only five other types of deciduous conifers, which defoliate through winter.

Laryx is a genus of about a dozen species that are known collectively as larch. Taxodium includes two species known as bald cypress, as well as a third evergreen species. Pseudolaryx amabilis, known as golden larch, Glyptostrobus pensilis, known as Chinese swamp cypress, and Metasequoia glyptostroboides, known as dawn redwood, are all three monospecific genera.

Some species of larch are common within their respective natural ranges. So are the bald cypresses. The others are quite rare. However, dawn redwood became a fad decades ago, so is not so rare in landscape situations. To those of us who expect all conifers to be evergreen, deciduous conifers seem to die suddenly in autumn. To some, it is not exactly a desirable characteristic.

The dawn redwood above lives in our landscapes. The tall evergreen trees behind it are native coastal redwood. Obscured by the yellowing birch to the right, a small giant redwood (another oxymoron) represents the third and only other species of redwood. The fall color of this dawn redwood appeals to some, but to others, it looks like one of the native redwoods abruptly died.

Our bald cypress below does not look so much like a dead redwood. The foliar texture and branch structure are quite distinct. The cinnamon brown fall color is actually rather appealing.

Of course, these pictures are nearly two weeks old. By now, both trees are likely bare because of the rain.P91201+


P91109KCalifornia flora is remarkable. It all does what it must to live comfortably in every ecosystem, climate and geographical region here.

California horsechestnut or California buckeye, Aesculus californica, is one of the more unusual native species. It is so in tune with the climate that it makes other deciduous trees seem to be inexperienced. Of course, to those who are unfamiliar with it, it just looks dead right now.

In chaparral climates of California, some deciduous trees start to defoliate early, before the weather starts to get cool in autumn. California sycamores, for example, can start to defoliate late in summer if the weather gets too warm and dry for them to want to hold their foliage any later. Such defoliation is more the result of minimal humidity than the result of chill.

California horsechestnut takes this technique one step further, by shedding spring foliage even earlier in summer, then refoliating once the rain starts in autumn, and then defoliating again as the late autumn foliage succumbs to frost through winter. It is ‘twice-deciduous’. It is a weird process that should not work, but obviously does.

It seems like a tree that is defoliated most of the time would exhaust its resources and wear itself out. However, California horsechestnut somehow stores enough resources to produce weirdly big seeds. These in the picture above are the same that were featured in ‘Six on Saturday‘ last week, while they were still in their husks.

Squirrels might chew on a few of these seeds, but do not bother storing them. They are mostly ignored by wildlife, perhaps because of their objectionable flavor. So, without squirrels to bury them, they fall to the forest floor near the trees that produce them, where they are too bulky to sift through the detritus to reach the soil below.

It makes one wonder why they put so much of their limited resources into seeds that are too big to reach the soil, but unappealing to wildlife that might otherwise disperse and bury them.

They know what they are doing.

Once the rain starts, and the seed sense that the weather is damp, they germinate on the surface of the detritus on the forest floor, and extend their tap roots through the detritus to the soil below. The seeds are too bulky to reach the soil directly, but contain all that their primary tap roots need to survive without desiccation until they reach the damp soil.


Leaves Are Starting To Fall

81003thumbAutumn is slow in getting here. Yes, as of last Sunday, it is now autumn. The date is determined by the equinox, so is the same for everyone in the Northern Hemisphere, and is the same for the arrival of spring in the Southern Hemisphere. It just takes a bit longer for autumn weather to develop in the mild climate here. Nights are cooler. Shorter days are not as warm as they had been.

Even without the pretty foliar color that cooling weather prompts in other regions, deciduous foliage is already beginning to fall. Poplars, willows and some other trees that a naturally endemic to riparian environments are the first to start. Some are actually developing a slight bit of color, mostly soft yellow. More colorful foliage needs cooler weather, so will develop as weather gets cooler.

Sooner or later, falling leaves will need to be raked from lawns and groundcover. Trees that drop their leaves for a long time through autumn and into winter necessitate more frequent raking, even if their leaves do not accumulate enough to do much damage. Trees that drop their leaves within a shorter season can quickly drop enough to shade out turf or groundcover, or cause them to rot.

Because fallen leaves can stain hardscape surfaces, they should be raked efficiently from pavement and decking as well. Those of us who do not mind the staining, or even appreciate its rustic patina, might leave some of the fallen foliage out for a while, but should not leave it out long enough to promote rot in decking. Some leaves cause staining quite quickly, especially if wet from rain.

If leaves need to be raked from the garden and pavement, they probably need to be cleaned from roof gutters and anywhere else they accumulate on roofs. Just like raking, the clearing of fallen leaves from gutters and roofs is scheduled around the timing of the falling leaves, although it is not nearly as frequent. It may even be unnecessary if trees are too far from roofs for their leaves to fall or be blown onto them. Leaves that stay in gutters too long eventually decompose and clog downspouts.

How Shade Is Made

70816thumbMany of our trees live at our homes longer than we do. Some of our trees were there before we got there. Some of the trees we plant will be there for whomever comes along after we are gone. Trees very often evolve into something very different from what they were intended to be. Nonetheless, since they are the most significant features of our gardens, trees must be selected carefully.

The recommendation that shade trees near the home should be deciduous is cliché but accurate. It makes sense that the trees that provide cooling shade in summer will also allow warmth and light through while bare in the winter. Evergreen trees are better for obscuring undesirable views around the perimeter of the garden, where they will not shade the home too much through winter.

The problem is that many modern gardens are too small for such diversity. Modern homes are so close to each other that evergreen trees are more important for obscuring views. Consequently, evergreen trees that provide privacy between homes and gardens might also function as shade trees. Limited space also means that trees affect neighboring homes and gardens significantly.

This is why so many of the small trees (that are known almost disdainfully by some arborists as ‘microtrees’) are so popular. Japanese maple, flowering cherry and smoke tree that were once popular for atriums and small enclosed gardens are now popular shade trees. Realistically though, some modern backyards are not much bigger than what was once considered to be an atrium.

Small evergreen trees or large shrubbery, like Australian willow, mayten, photinia and the larger pittosporums, work nicely by providing both privacy and shade for small areas. Contrary to popular belief though, evergreens are generally messier than deciduous trees. They drop small amounts of foliage throughout the year instead of dropping most or all of their foliage within a limited season. Flowers or fruit add another dimension of mess, even for deciduous trees like crape myrtle, flowering crabapple and saucer magnolia.

Summer Deciduous

P80623K+++That is a term that we do not hear much. There are not many plants that it applies to. Cyclamen is one of the more familiar plants that is summer deciduous. It is from a climate with reasonably mild winters and unpleasantly dry and warm summers. Just like most deciduous plants are dormant through winter to avoid the unpleasantries of the weather, cyclamen defoliates as the weather gets warm in early summer to avoid the expected heat and aridity. It somehow knows how to stay dormant until the weather starts to get cooler in autumn, and is ready to regenerate new foliage and bloom as the rain starts. The active growing season is through autumn, winter and into spring. It is all a matter of taking advantage of the weather while it can, and avoiding the discomforts of severe weather when necessary.

Rhody, like most dogs, has been shedding his fluffier inner winter coat through spring. He still seems to be too fluffy for the weather, but he must know what he is doing. The remaining wiry outer coat provides a bit of shade, and helps to dissipate a bit of warmth when necessary.

Unlike Rhody, I do not have a fluffier undercoat to shed. All that I could do is shed some of the sparse and wiry outer coat. It might have provided shade, but also interfered with cooling air circulation. It does not seem to be designed to dissipate heat like Rhody’s is. Regardless, it was shed just before the Summer Solstice, and will not regenerate until autumn. A barber sheared back the upper evergreen growth first. I then pollarded most of the lower growth, leaving only a pair of formally shorn hedges flanking the upper margin. They too may be removed soon. Antithetically of