Foliar Color Goes Beyond Green

Foliar color can exceed floral color.

New England is famous for spectacular foliar color through autumn. Such color is merely seasonal though, and almost exclusive to deciduous vegetation. With few exceptions, its color range is limited to variations of yellow, orange, red or brown. It happens thousands of miles away, and is difficult to replicate on such a grand scale with locally minimal chill.

For smaller scale home gardens, there are many options for foliar color at any time of the year, regardless of chill. Some are deciduous. Most are evergreen. Colorful foliage might exhibit variegation or monochromatic coloration. Variegation might involve stripes, spots, borders, veining, or any combination of divergent colors. Some might entail a few colors.

Besides autumnal yellow, orange, red or brown, foliage can be pink, purple, blue or gray. Variegation can feature any of these colors, as well as white. The size and form of plants with foliar color ranges from small annuals and perennials to vines, shrubbery and trees. A few of such plants that are deciduous might change to different colors through autumn.

Various Hosta, Euonymus, Coprosma, Pittosporum, Hedera and Bougainvillea are some of the more popular plants with white or yellow variegation. New Zealand flax is popular for bronze, brown, gold or pink variegation. Canna can display evenly bronze or purplish foliage, white patches on green foliage, or neat yellow and pink stripes of varying widths.

Purple leaf plum and some cultivars of smoke tree, beech Eastern redbud and Japanese maple have the best purplish foliage. Other cultivars of smoke tree, as well as arborvitae, juniper, Monterey cypress and honeylocust, generate impressively yellow foliage. Agave and blue spruce contribute soft blue. Coleus impresses with various color combinations.

Whether deciduous or evergreen, most colorful foliage displays its best color while fresh and new in spring. For some, color fades through summer. Junipers that are gold through spring may be plain green by summer, particularly in dry conditions. Although light colors and variegation are appealing within shady situations, shade can inhibit such coloration.

Evergreen Foliage Has Distinct Advantages

Evergreen foliage is shady all year.

Gardening was easier before suburban lifestyles became so passe. Now, larger modern urban homes occupy smaller urban parcels. Modern fences are taller to enhance privacy for such densely situated homes. Garden space is both minimal and shaded by so much infrastructure. Ironically, shady evergreen foliage is now more practical for such gardens.

Deciduous trees are still practical for single story suburban homes on suburban parcels. They provide cooling shade for summer, and allow warming sunshine through for winter. Smaller evergreen trees and shrubs closer to fences obscure unwanted scenery beyond, without shading homes during winter. Such strategy is facilitated by sufficiency of space.

It is not so practical for confined and modern urban gardens though. Space is insufficient for big deciduous shade trees. Smaller trees can not get tall enough to shade roofs of tall modern homes. Insulation of modern homes is fortunately so efficient that summer shade and winter sunshine are not as advantageous as they still are for older suburban homes.

Therefore, most trees in modern home gardens primarily obscure unwanted scenery and provide privacy, rather than merely provide shade. Not only should they be proportionate to their gardens, but such trees should also retain evergreen foliage as low as the tops of associated fences. Some of the more practical options are actually evergreen shrubbery.

Large evergreen trees, such as Southern magnolia, California pepper, camphor, various palms and some eucalypti, are too big for some confined modern home gardens. English laurel, New Zealand tea tree, hopseed bush, various arborvitae, and particularly various pittosporum function as small evergreen trees that are proportionate to confined gardens.

As practical as evergreen foliage is for modern urban home gardens, it requires as much maintenance as other forms of vegetation. Contrary to common belief, evergreen foliage sheds. It is just sneaky about doing so slowly throughout the year. Additional foliage also innately adds shade to already shady situations, which can complicate other gardening. To become compact evergreen trees, shrubbery requires directional pruning.

Chinese Evergreen

With such lush foliage, Chinese evergreen is a bold houseplant alone, and is also quite compatible with all other houseplants.

It is no coincidence that Chinese evergreen, Aglaonema, is perhaps the most common tropical plant for interiorscapes. It is quite easy to care for, and available in so many unique personalities. Many have rich deep green foliage. Most are elegantly variegated with white, silvery gray or gold. Leaf shape is quite variable, although most have rather narrow leaves radiating outward from dense rosettes. Leaves can be half a foot to more than a foot long, and a bit more than an inch to almost six inches wide. Mature plants are at least a foot tall and a foot and a half broad.

Indirect sun exposure or partial shade is best. Chinese evergreen likes humidity, so likes to share sheltered enclosed atriums with other lush foliage plants. New plants are easy to propagate by division.

Christmas Trees Dead Or Alive

Live Christmas trees can get huge.

Poinsettias, Christmas cacti, cyclamen, various forced bulbs and several other seasonal potted plants are again becoming popular. It happens annually prior to Christmas. Heath, heather, rosemary, English holly with berries, and delightful compact conifers have been gaining popularity for many past years. Seasonal potted plants are increasingly diverse.

Unfortunately, few survive for long after Christmas. Forced bulbs exhaust their resources. Cyclamen are likely to rot after a month or so. Very few retire to a garden. Poinsettia gets too lanky in the garden to be a favorite. Most seasonal plants simply succumb to neglect. After their primary performances, they are no longer interesting enough to justify tending.

In reality, some of these seasonal potted plants are little more than cut flowers with roots. These roots allow them to live longer than cut flowers, but their ultimate fate is the same. Wreaths, garlands and various seasonal cut greenery likewise serve a purpose, but only temporarily. Without roots, it all lacks any potential to retire into a garden after Christmas.

Christmas trees are really not much different. Although there are several different sorts of Christmas trees, they fit into similar categories as cut foliage and seasonal potted plants. Obviously, they are seasonal. They need not last much longer than Christmas. Although, some have a potential to do so, few survive or function for more than a few Christmases.

Contrary to popular belief, and their expense, cut Christmas trees are generally the most practical Christmas trees. They are essentially a very substantial sort of cut foliage. They grow on farms like any other foliage and vegetables. After such a tree serves its purpose, it resigns to compost or green waste recyclery. A freshly cut tree can replace it next year.

Large potted Christmas trees may seem to be more practical, but require maintenance to remain as appealing as they are now for another year. Despite the expense, few last that long. They want to get out of confinement, so that they can grow as trees. Pre-decorated small trees are Italian stone pines. They grow much too big for contained home gardens.

Evergreen Tendencies Are No Mistake

Evergreen foliage is resilient through winter.

Evergreen plants retain foliage throughout the year. Deciduous plants defoliate for part of the year. That is the simplest explanation. The various reasons for shedding or retaining foliage are not so simple. Annual plants die after their single growing seasons. They can not live long enough to be either evergreen or deciduous. Some plants just may be both.

Foliar color, to some extent, conforms to preferable environments. Monterey cypress and Monterey pine have richly deep green foliage. It maximizes absorption of sunlight within the foggy coastal regions that the trees inhabit. Blue spruce has glaucous bluish foliage. It reflects a bit of sunlight to protect from sun scald within severe high mountain climates.

Similarly, deciduous plants generally defoliate for environmental situations. Most go bare for winter, in order to be less susceptible to damage from wind and snow. Bare stems do not collect as much heavy snow as foliated growth. They are also less resistant to wintry winds. If foliated, they are more likely to succumb to wind or overburdening snow weight. 

Evergreen plants may retain their foliage because they are from climates in which winter weather is not so harsh. Wind may be no more extreme than it is in other seasons. Snow may never occur. Plants from tropical regions may be unfamiliar with colder weather and shorter daylength associated with winter. Their evergreen foliage might function all year.

Some tropical plants that are evergreen within their native environments may defoliate or die back as a result of even mild frost. Some recover as if deciduous. (Those that can not survive local climate conditions are not very popular here.) For example, canna die back to the ground after frost, but regenerate later. In tropical climates, they can be evergreen.

Evergreen species from mountainous regions or extreme northern latitudes are generally uncommon here. They prefer harsher weather. Although evergreen, they are remarkably resilient to wind and snow in the wild. They are likely evergreen to always stay receptive to limited sunlight whenever it is available, though wintry weather is possible at any time. 

Coral Bells

Most coral bells are grown for their colorful foliage.

From Santa Barbara to Vancouver, and also in central Idaho, the humble native coral bells, Heuchera micrantha, is not much to look at, with compact rosettes of relatively small and bronzy rounded leaves with weird tomentum (hairs). In spring and early summer, and sometimes again in autumn, sparse trusses of minute brick red flowers hover about a foot above on wiry and slightly fuzzy stems. Old plants that get bare in the middle can be divided into several small plants in spring or autumn.

Modern cultivars are considerably more interesting, with more substantial foliage in various shades of green, gold, tan, brown, bronze and purplish bronze. The larger and variably lobed leaves can be two inches wide or slightly wider. The flowers stand as much as two feet high, but lack color. Most are pale greenish white. ‘Palace Purple’ has deep bronze or almost purplish foliage. ‘Ruffles’ has deeply lobed and ruffled green leaves. Unlike undemanding wild plants that can grow in cracks in exposed stone, modern cultivars like rich soil. Harsh exposure can scorch foliage, so a bit of partial shade is preferred.

Many coral bells have delightful bloom as an added bonus to their foliage.

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.

Gardens Show Their True Colors

California gets autumn foliar color too.

Contrary to popular belief, good autumn foliar color, or ‘fall color’, is possible on the West Coast. Mild weather only limits the options for trees, shrubs, vines and perennials that color well. Besides, autumn foliar color simply is not a popular priority in western gardening.

Boston ivy must be the best climbing vine for color in autumn. Unfortunately, it is too aggressive for refined urban gardens, and clings with ‘holdfast discs’ that damage the surfaces that it climbs. It is better for freeway soundwalls and interchanges. Grapevine is a more docile option, and also produces grapes, but most cultivars (cultivated varieties) are not too remarkably colorful. Wisteria can turn an appealing shade of soft yellow where well exposed, but its best asset is still the colorful and fragrant bloom in spring.

Eastern redbud, crape myrtle, smoke tree and currant are some of the better shrubbery for autumn foliar color. Of these, Eastern redbud develops the most subdued shade of yellow; and crape myrtle develops the most brilliant shades of yellow, orange and red. Both are incidentally considered to be small trees. Smoke trees that have purplish foliage in summer are typically less colorful in autumn than those with green summer foliage. Some of the Japanese maple trees that display good color in autumn are smaller than some of the larger shrubbery.

The North American and European maples that are so colorful where autumn weather is cooler are not so impressive here. Even if the color is good, the foliage does not linger very long, but instead falls as soon as the weather gets breezy or rainy. Silver maple and box elder (which is actually a maple) which are so pretty and green through summer can actually look rather dingy as they yellow for autumn. Fruitless mulberry, tulip tree, black walnut and the various poplars and locusts can color well if the weather is just so, but display only bright yellow without orange or red. Maidenhair tree impresses with the same limited color range only because it is so reliable, and the yellow color is so very brilliant.

Really, the best trees for autumn foliar color are still sweetgum, Chinese pistache and flowering pear. They do not need much cool weather to display impressively brilliant blends of yellow, orange and red. Where the messy fruiting structures (maces) and aggressive roots are not likely to be a problem, sweetgum is a tall and elegant shade tree. Sweetgum trees innately hold their colorful foliage well, and some sheltered trees sometimes hold their foliage through most of winter. Chinese pistache is neither as messy nor as aggressive as sweetgum is, as it forms a broad and low canopy that is likely to need pruning for adequate clearance. It is becoming more popular as a street tree in many municipalities. Flowering pear is perhaps the most cooperative of the three if pruned to improve structural integrity while young, but stays smaller than the others. It is actually quite proportionate to smaller gardens of modern homes.

Fall Color To Fall For

Fall color develops with seasonal changes.

Autumn is also fall here. Actually, ‘fall’ is the more popular name. It had been the popular name in England during the Sixteenth Century. The (generally) French name of ‘autumn’ became more common there during the Seventeenth Century. Yet, both names remained in use in the American Colonies. That is why autumn foliar color is more simply fall color. 

The natural fall color in New England, the Appalachian Mountains, the Rocky Mountains and the Great North Woods is famously exquisite. So many of the native deciduous trees develop remarkable fall color in response to local weather conditions. These same trees might not get sufficient chill to develop comparable fall color in milder climates of Florida. 

In most regions of California, natural fall color is limited by the ability of native species to develop such color. Bigleaf maple and the various poplars turn bright yellow with a slight chill, but are not abundant. Even when chilled, the foliage of most other native deciduous trees simply shrivels and falls without much color. Most of the native trees are evergreen. 

Therefore, most of the best local fall color is provided by exotic (nonnative) tree species. Such trees not only develop remarkable fall color, but do so in response to minimal chill. Sweetgum, flowering pear, Chinese pistache and ginkgo are four trees that most reliably develop brilliant fall color where winter weather is mild. None are native. All are popular.

Ginkgo turns brilliant yellow. The other three display various colors that range from bright yellow, to fiery orange, to rich red and burgundy. Their colorful foliage lingers longer than that of other deciduous trees. Sweetgum and flowering pear might retain fall color until it succumbs to rain in winter. Of course, these are not the only options for reliable fall color. 

No tree is perfect. Although very colorful in autumn, sweetgum is notoriously structurally deficient, and produces obnoxiously spiked fruiting structures. Flowering pear is innately susceptible to fire blight. All deciduous trees drop leaves, which need raking. Trees must conform to their situational limitations, as well as their particular landscape applications.

New Zealand Flax

New Zealand flax provides bold texture.

Simple old fashioned New Zealand flax, Phormium tenax, has been popular on the West Coast for as long as anyone can remember. Big specimens are prominent in old pictures of Victorian era gardens. The upright and olive drab foliage gets as high as ten feet, and as broad as fifteen feet. Bronzed and variegated cultivars stay somewhat more compact.

Modern cultivars of New Zealand flax might be Phormium colensoi, or hybrids of the two species. They are generally even more compact, with more colorful foliage. Foliage may be olive green, greenish yellow, brownish bronze, rich reddish bronze or striped with like colors. Some bronze sorts are striped with tan or pink. ‘Yellow Wave’ has floppier foliage. 

New Zealand flax is a tough evergreen perennial. Its long and narrow leaves can be too fibrous to cut without scissors. These leaves grow as tall as they do from clumping basal rhizomes. Interestingly rigid floral stalks stand slightly higher than the foliage, with yellow or red bloom. After bloom, these floral stalks can be a delightful and bold dried cut flower, and work well with pampas grass bloom.