Wispy billows of pinkish or tan blooms through June and July are what the smoke tree, Cotinus coggygria, is named for. It probably should have gotten more recognition for brilliant foliar color in autumn. It reliably turns bright yellow and orange, and if the weather is right, it can turn rich red and even purplish. Until then, the popular modern varieties have either dark purplish or light yellowish foliage. Some of the older plants have slightly bluish green foliage. The nearly circular leaves are about two or three inches long. Yellowish varieties tend to be shortest. Those with purplish or bronze foliage get larger. Old fashioned green plants are the largest, and can get twelve feet tall and broad. Smoke tree can be large shrubbery, or pruned up as small trees. Aggressive pruning in winter promotes better foliar color through spring and summer, but inhibits smoky bloom. Slightly distressed plants have better color in autumn. Plants that are watered too much are likely to succumb to disease within only a few years.
Flowers get all the credit for color. They certainly are the most colorful features in the garden, as well as the most fragrant. However, foliage can do so much more than simply provide green. It can be hued with yellow, red, blue, purple, bronze, gray, or variegated with white or yellow. Plants with colorful foliage can range in size and function from small annuals and perennials to shrubbery, vines and even trees.
Hydrangea, hosta, ivy, English holly and various pittosporum are some of the more popular plants for white variegation, and are often variegated with yellow. Euonymus can conversely be variegated with white, but is usually variegated with yellow. New Zealand flax can be variegated with pink, bronze, brown or gold. Box elder is a good sized deciduous tree that can be variegated with white, or alternatively frosted uniformly with gold as new foliage emerges in spring. There is even a variety that has slightly purplish or smoky colored new foliage.
Silver mountain gum, silver Mediterranean fan palm, lamb’s ears, artemesia and the various dusty millers have remarkably silvery foliage. Silver mountain gum can grow into a mid-sized tree with a stout trunk. Lamb’s ears is a low perennial. Olive trees, some junipers and the various lavenders have gray foliage. Colorado blue spruce and some agaves have striking blue color.
Various purple leaf plums and Japanese maples are famous for their purplish foliage. Smoke tree and some beech have even darker purplish foliage. Some New Zealand flax and cannas can be just as purple or comparably bronze.
Actually, New Zealand flax and cannas, as well as junipers known for blue or gray foliage, can alternatively be bright yellow. Golden arborvitae, golden honeylocust and golden Monterey cypress really stand out nicely against darker green.
Colorful foliage tends to be most colorful as it develops freshly in spring, and tends to fade somewhat through summer. Gold junipers can actually fade to basic green by autumn. Shade inhibits most types of coloration, but can show off variegation better. There really is so much variety with colorful foliage that it is impossible to generalize.
Too much of a good thing eventually gets old. That is how so many of the good junipers that were so popular half a century ago became so unpopular. They became too common, and many were planted into situations that they were not appropriate for. As they matured, many became overgrown or disfigured. Only recently have a few newly introduced modern cultivars restored the appeal of both new and traditional junipers to a generation that is less familiar with their former stigma.
Even though all junipers are evergreen and somewhat similar in regard to foliar texture and their lack of interesting bloom, they demonstrate considerable diversity. Some are low and sprawling ground covers. Others are dense low shrubbery. A few develop as small trees. Branch structure may be densely compact, gracefully arching, rigidly upright, or sculpturally irregular.
Some junipers have yellowish new growth that eventually turns to a more typical deep green. Others are bluish gray throughout. A few rare types are variegated. Almost all junipers have scale-like leaves (like those of cypress). A few have needle-like leaves.
‘Blue Arrow’ and more traditional ‘Skyrocket’ junipers are like short and plump Italian cypress with bluish or gray foliage. ‘Wichita Blue’ juniper is even shorter and plumper, with more sculptural branch structure. However, it is not nearly as irregular and sculptural as the old fashioned ‘Hollywood’ juniper. Modern ‘Gold Star’ and the older ‘Old Gold’ junipers are shrubby types that exhibit arching stems with gold tips.
‘Icee Blue’ is like an improved version of the classic ‘Blue Rug’ juniper, that matures as a shallow bluish ground cover. ‘Blueberry Delight’ juniper is one of the few junipers known for conspicuous fruit, with pretty powdery blue berries against grayish needle-like foliage on trailing stems. ‘Limeglow’ juniper gets a bit deeper, and exhibits chartreuse new growth that turns rich green.
Just because junipers can be shorn certainly does not mean that they should be! Shearing deprives junipers of their naturally appealing texture and form. Instead, junipers should be selectively pruned only where necessary to eliminate growth that is beginning to become obtrusive. Stems should be cut back deeply into the main stems from which they originate, in order to avoid leaving stubs or disfigured stems. Tree junipers like ‘Hollywood’ juniper, as well as overgrown shrubby junipers, can be pruned to expose bare trunks and stems. The gnarly stems and shredding bark can be as appealing as the foliage that obscures them.
Otherwise, once established, junipers do not need much attention or water, and are remarkably resilient. They only rarely get infested with spider mites or scale insects, or get damaged by disease. They only want good sun exposure.
There was nothing common or soft about Rush, the innovative hard rock band of the seventies and eighties. Juncus effusus is only known as soft rush because the spiky and sharply pointed ‘foliage’ appears to be stiff, but is actually quite soft. It is common because in has such a vast natural range, including North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. It does not like hard rock, but instead prefers rich and moist soil, and will even be happy in soil that is too damp for other plants. Common rush tolerates a bit of shade but prefers good exposure. Because winters are too mild to freeze it back to the ground naturally, overgrown or discolored common rush can be cut down and then left to regenerate as winter ends.
The distinctive ‘foliage’ is not actually foliage. The minute leaves are unimpressive brown scales that do not do much at the base of each of the many upright green stems that function like foliage. The top six inches or so of each of these spike like stems is actually a bract that extends above the dangling but uninteresting tan or dingy yellow flowers that hang to the side. Collectively, the stems and bracts form distinctively sculptural clumps that radiate upward and outward. Healthy clumps are not much more than three feet high and wide.
The differences between false ligularia (Farfugium spp.) and real ligularia (Ligularia spp.) are so vague that the the names are commonly interchangeable. Leopard plant happens to be a real Ligularia japonica. The round and very glossy leaves are dark green with random spots of sunny yellow. Mature plants form rather dense foliar mounds about a foot wide and nearly as high. Prominent floral trusses that bloom in late summer or early autumn are a pleasant surprise, even though the small and sometimes feeble daisy flowers are typically only dingy gold, and often have brownish centers. Both ligularia and false ligularia are understory plants that naturally prefer the shelter of larger plants, so they prefer partial shade. They also like relatively rich soil and regular watering, although once established, they can recover efficiently if they happen to briefly get dry enough to wilt.
There are so many excellent ligularia to choose from. Crested ligularia is not one of them. Although it is an excellent and distinctive perennial, it is not really a ligularia. It is Farfugium japonicum ‘Cristata’ (which actually sounds more like a hybrid of a Volkswagen and a Toyota). The slightly fuzzy and coarsely ruffled rounded leaves form grayish green mounds more than a foot high and wide. Gold trusses of small daisy flowers bloom late in summer or early in autumn. Regular watering and partial shade keep foliage full. Harsh exposure can discolor foliage during the warmest summer weather. Frost is not often a problem.
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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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.
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.
Autumn color is different every year. Sometimes, early and sudden cool weather after a mild summer promotes good foliar color that lingers longer while relaxed trees slowly realize that they should probably start to defoliate. Sometimes, early wind and rain accelerate defoliation of otherwise good color. There are a few variables that trees must adapt their performance to.
Warm and arid weather two weeks ago started the process of defoliation suddenly and a maybe slightly early this year. Even before the weather gets cool, deciduous trees are already starting to shed the oldest of their foliage that they do not need in order to hold their youngest foliage a bit later into autumn. Evergreen trees do the same to limit desiccation.
Slightly breezy weather that was so pleasant after such heat was just enough to start dislodging deteriorating foliage. Now, leaves are already starting to fall before they develop much color. Redwoods and pines are likewise dropping browned needles. Fortunately, trees that are the most colorful in autumn tend to hold their foliage better until the weather gets cooler.
It is impossible to predict how colorful trees will be this autumn; although if storms are as healthy as predicted, the mild temperatures may inhibit color, while wind and rain dislodge colorful foliage. Regardless, it is already time to start raking falling leaves and needles. They can get messy, and when the rain starts, they can stain pavement and clog gutters.
When more foliage falls later in autumn, it will need to be raked from ground cover, surviving portions of lawn, and any other plants that collect it, so that it does not shade out the sunlight.