Don’t let fall color fool you
Posted: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 8:02 pm
By: By JIMMY WILLIAMS
November, according to James Whitcomb Riley, is the time of frosty “punkins” and shocked fodder.
In our latitude, autumn leaf color reaches its zenith just about now, later than most people think. This year’s color, such as it is, leans heavily toward brown. Some of those brown leaves you are seeing have been there since way back in August, as the drought began to take its toll on even large specimens. Next spring will tell the tale, but you can bet some of them are dead as a mackerel.
We are often enamored by some tree or other (less often with shrubs) in a nursery that shows spectacular leaf color at this time of year. Unless caution prevails, a buying mistake could be made on the weight of that brilliant color.
There are numerous trees that exhibit fine fall color but which, all the rest of the year, prove to be distinct liabilities.
No more dramatic example exists than the (in)famous Bradford pear. This variety of the oriental Callery pear burst onto the scene within the last half century and took the world by storm. You, this writer, and experts of far more acumen were snookered by the gorgeous autumn color and the weeklong cumulus of white bloom in the spring.
Nurseries couldn’t keep up the demand and, despite having been proved a crummy tree, with a wont of falling apart under snow or spanking breezes, fools are still buying them by the millions every year. As soon as one falls apart, it is hewn into firewood and another planted in its place.
The autumn color of a Bradford is, indeed, spectacular, showing up after most trees have shed their load and making a dramatic statement in an otherwise drab late fall picture.
But enough of the junk. What about trees that are showy in autumn and fine trees the other months of the year?
If you can grow one, just about the best is the native sourwood. With glossy red leaves that seem to have been enameled and polished, the foliage colors up while the remains of the summer bloom still hang from branch tips. Those blooms cranked up back in July in racemes of white that were effective for fully a month when there is otherwise a dearth of woody plant color.
Despite the fact that sourwoods exist — yea, thrive — on red clay and road cuts of almost pure gravel as well as on better sites, I have utterly failed at growing one, as have numerous of my friends. They do like acid conditions, but that’s no problem in our area. Mine usually languish on life support the first year or so, then go right on out soon after. I’ve been through at least a half dozen of them.
Highway 641 South between the Big Sandy River and Camden is rife with them along the high, sterile banks that would seem to be void of any life-giving nutrients, but there they are in all their glory.
Then there is sassafras, almost non-existent in nurseries but a quality small shade tree or ornamental. Fence rows are choked with them in our part of the world, their tendency to sucker resulting in a thicket from a single seedling in a few years.
This suckering isn’t a problem where mowing around the tree is the regimen, as the suckers are cut off before they can develop. But when given room, a thicket (more poetically, a grove) of sassafras becomes picturesque in older age.
With so many wild ones out there, it would seem a simple matter to move one to your garden, but most of them are suckers from a nearby mother tree and impossible to move. Occasionally one will prove to be a seedling, usually when far from others. These can be moved easily, if dug when small, say no more than three feet tall. They grow fast, and the three-foot whip will be 15 feet tall in as little as three years.
Old sassafras trees, sometimes 50 feet tall, have a beautiful, gnarled, picturesque winter framework, and the fall color, ranging from brilliant red, to orange to yellow and everything in between, takes some beating.
Flowers are nondescript close up, but the plethora of them on a sizable tree is worthwhile in spring. The fuzzy yellow blooms show at a distance, and female trees follow with purple fruits relished by birds.
From Poor Willie’s Almanack — Don’t get snookered by a pretty fall face.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 11.9.10
Jimmy Williams, The Garden Path