Is it autumn already?

With leaves changing colour all around us there’s no chance of pretending autumn isn’t on its way. All we can do is to embrace the season and enjoy the show. What’s your favourite plant for autumn colour?

Parthenossisus cinquefolia (Virginia Creeper) is early to colour up.

It’s been an unusual growing year. It began with an apparently very early spring, which turned out not to be spring at all; just a mild spell in winter. The cold and the snow that followed was harsher than anyone would have expected and the winter, far from ending early, dragged on.

But the main talking point was the prolonged hot, sunny weather. Just as the plants were getting into their stride and looking good, they were hit with the kind of conditions that wouldn’t have been out of place in Western Australia. Hot, dry weather dragged on, and turned into drought, and I found myself torn between loving the warmth and the sunshine, and hating what was happening to the plants. I watched the gardens bake and the plants shrivel. Where there should have been luxuriant foliage, the bare earth showed through; dry and cracked. On our heavy clay soil the cracks were frightening.
A deep crack in the dried remains of what once was a lawn.

There were losses. I’d built up, from seed, some good clumps of monkshood (Aconitum) which is one of my favourite perennials (famously poisonous, but I’ve no intention of eating it). They all shrivelled and died. I still hold out some hope that they may just be resting, ready to re-emerge next spring, but I think it unlikely – I would have expected to see some re-growth this year if they were still alive.
Aconitum in March.They were grown, a few years ago, from seeds collected from an unidentified variety in a customer’s garden.

Camassias too, had bulked up nicely, from a single plant bought during its dormant period for a big discount. They would have died back after flowering anyway but, like the aconitums, I’m not confident they will come back next year.

Camassias  (C. cusickii) in the cool border in May – but will they come up next year?

On my gardening rounds I’ve noticed two types of plants, both garden stalwarts, that proved particularly susceptible to the lack of moisture in the soil. Astilbe tends to prefer damp conditions anyway, and every example I’ve come across turned into a mound of dried up sticks early on. And many of the hydrangeas went the same way (though I was able to rescue some by watering regularly). Most of them will regrow, and it will be interesting to see where the shoots come from – if they regrow from the centre of the plants, or from further along the woody stems.
One of the many hydrangeas that succumbed to the drought.

When the rain finally arrived, it was a relief to see plants beginning to revive. But even looking beyond the losses, gardens have still been a shadow of their earlier selves. In this area (near Cardiff, in the Vale of Glamorgan) we never got the heavy downpours that I’m told happened elsewhere; the cracks never closed up, and we are still on the verge of drought conditions. The period of re-growth that followed the drought seemed too restrained and too short, but we’ll have to make do with it, because autumn is coming in now.

A seedling of Acer griseum showing good (and early) autumn colour.

At least we can enjoy the autumn colours. I’ve a feeling they’re going to be particularly spectacular this year. There are so many plants that give us beautiful autumn tints, from the bright yellows of Ginko biloba, to the bright reds of spindle bush (deciduous euonymus). Species of cherry compete for depth of colour with those of maple – the Japanese maples often make brilliant autumn colour, as do many less common garden species, such as Nissa sylvatica. The large, glossy leaves of Liquidambar styraciflua take on deep red and purple hues that flush steadily through the canopy from the outside in.

My own personal favourite is less exotic. The common beech tree (Fagus sylvatica) fades through yellow to a lovely burnt orange that glows beautifully in the rich autumn sunlight.

So, what’s your favourite?

Text and images © Graham Wright 2018

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