It may have been a disastrously wet spring and summer but as is so often Nature’s way, there is a happy and glorious ending in the form of a stunning display of autumnal foliage that looks set to cover the country as the season develops. Take a look at the trees in town and countryside and watch as their leaves turn, first yellow-green and pale gold, to orange and terracotta, and then perhaps crimson and purple. Wild cherries, field maples and silver birches… their branches seem to burn with gold and rubies in the low light of autumn.
In our gardens, the gentle decline of summer is forgotten at the sight of Acer rubrum (pictured), the scarlet foliage of which is capable of drawing all our attention, and here in Britain, we have lovingly adopted this non-native acer as a favourite autumn tree. ‘Scanlon’, with its narrow, columnar shape, is one of the best forms for small gardens.
Other explosions of colour come from Sorbus, Parrotia, Liquidambar and Amelanchier, all fine garden trees. The red-maroon autumn foliage of Liquidambar styraciflua Kia (pictured) often holds on into the depths of December; the tree releases a sweet balsam smell in the breeze and grows to five metres tall.
Remember that this seasonal glory does not have to come from just one source; it can be incorporated into a garden design via topiary or hedging, to combine for even greater impact. Beech, for example, can be clipped into sculptural blocks and pillars and will hold its copper leaves for months. Acer tataricum subsp. aidzuense (pictured) has yellow-crimson leaves and should be sheltered from cold winds.
“Show off pale bronze Cercidiphyllum japonicum by planting it in front of dark evergreen trees. If you choose an acer, make sure its red leaves drop onto something that emphasises their colour, such as light grey stone,” says Marcus Barnett, landscape and garden designer, 020 7736 9761. Pictured is Acer palmatum Takinogawa.
The green leaves of Aesculus glabra (pictured), commonly known as Ohio buckeye, have orange-crimson tints in autumn.
Cuttings of autumn foliage, such as the vibrant leaves of this oak, can make wonderful indoor displays when arranged on mantelpieces or tabletops.
Meanwhile, some leaves turn red because of the anthocyanin, the antioxidant-rich pigment that some trees produce in autumn. This pigment guards the leaf from sunlight so that nutrients can be absorbed before it falls, which is why the punchiest scarlet is usually found in the trees growing in the poorest soils. The scarlet oak Quercus coccinea Splendens (pictured) produces its best colour in full sun on slightly acidic soil.
Rshus typhina Bailtiger (pictured) with feathery chartreuse-yellow foliage, is excellent for a smaller space. Also good for small gardens is Acer palmatum var. dissectum, which glows red and can be container grown, and Sorbus vilmorinii, which has fern-like leaves that turn deep red and white berries that turn pink.
Acer palmatum Sango kaku, with its yellow autumnal leaves and striking pink bark, grows to an ideal size for medium gardens. Also good for mid-sized spaces is Parriotia persica, which flushes apricot and then red, and Acer campestre, which turns an electric shade of gold and is adored by wildlife.
Igniting in October in shades of gold, red and orange, Nyssa sylvatica (pictured) will fill larger gardens with autumnal colour. Those with ample outdoor space could also plant Cercidiphyllum japonicum which turns bronze-red and exudes a scent of burnt sugar, and Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’ which tollerates pollution and so is ideal for town gardens.