Going Down in a Blaze of Glory

Acers are hard to beat for blazing colour.

Acers are hard to beat for blazing colour.

If you’re a spring person like me this may not be your favourite time of year. However we are all part of the great circle of life and as the year draws to a close there are many compensations to be had for the shortening days in the outdoor world. This is when those with large gardens are to be envied as autumn, more than any other season, is the time of the tree. If you live in an area with acidic soil you are even luckier as many of the best trees for autumn colour produce their most vivid tints in acidic areas.

Here in south Galway there is still much to see though, despite the limy nature of our rocks and soil. A drive past native hedgerows on a clear, still October day is a joy, with spindle blazing like a bonfire. This is the otherwise unremarkable native Euonymus europaeus, hardly visible for the rest of the year but displaying amazing shades of crimson just now and fruit a funky mixture of magenta pink and orange if you look closely. The humble wild blackberry produces surprisingly lovely autumn leaf colour as does the guilder rose, Viburnum opulus. Bunches of fruit hang down in all the rich colours of a Renaissance painting – the dusky purple of the elder and sloe and the deep ruby of the hawthorn, while silver birch leaves provide a golden yellow backdrop.

These native species can make a great mixed native hedge if you have a large garden in a rural area, providing food for wildlife as well as nesting areas, and helping your garden to blend in well with its surroundings.

If you’re after trees for autumn colour in the garden, Japanese maples are good in a small space, but you do need to be in a sheltered spot for them to do well. Acer palmatum “Osakazuki” and the old favourite “Sango-kaku” are usually safe bets. In a bigger garden Liquidambar styraciflua or sweet gum is spectacular in autumn, as is Parrotia persica, the Persian Ironwood. You might be surprised at how many of the flowering cherries colour up spectacularly in autumn – we tend to associate them with springtime but many of them work hard to earn their place with a stunning flash of raspberry and crimson colour.

If you don’t have room for a tree just for autumn colour, there are plenty of shrubs that will provide you with blazing shades in every size from the tiny Berberis thunbergii “Atropurpurea Nana” (nana means little ), to the enormous Cotinus “Grace” taking up as much space as a medium sized shed when mature! Now is a great time to choose something you love in your local garden centre, make sure it’s a suitable size for your garden and extend the season of colour for a little bit longer this year and in future. In this late afternoon of the year, I’ll leave you with a few lines from “The Last Week in October” by Thomas Hardy:

“The trees are undressing, and fling in many places-

On the gray road, the roof, the window-sill –

Their radiant robes and ribbons and yellow laces;

A leaf each second so is flung at will,

Here, there, another and another, still and still.”

The radiant robes of autumn trees


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