True blue, rare in flowers, is easily obtainable in bog sage

Jimmy Williams

Optimum tree planting time is just around the corner; in fact, it has already rounded the corner and will remain optimum as long as the ground is not frozen.

We mentioned here last week some few trees for fall color, to wit, those just fading away with a few late leaf holders yet to come. At any rate, there are plenty more of sensational color that should be known, some common, others less so. We are taking only those without serious faults.

Maples we mentioned last week, but with the omission of Japanese varieties, some of which color up dramatically. The spreading lace-leaf types, i.e. ‘Crimson Queen’ and others, are often right at eye level and close-up viewing enhances the enjoyment. Then the upright types, mostly with broader leaves and which grow to 20 feet or more, offer more leaf surface to show off, and indeed they fill the bill. 

Japanese maples with red leaves early in the season will, most years, turn into a more subdued greenish-red in our hot climate, but return to a decided, and sometimes excellent, red in fall. 

A horse of a different color is the coral bark maple, ‘Sanga Kaku’ in case the Japanese moniker appeals to you, which has more than just autumn leaf color. Bark on new growth has a coral color, as per the common name. This, in winter, is a great attraction and more dependable than some of the red-twig dogwoods, many of which go down to canker in our heat. By cutting back your coral bark maple every few years, new wood is produced which has the most marked color. 

In addition, the autumn leaf color of coral bark maple is a bright orange and dependable for its contribution. In fact, the tree leafs out in spring with a subdued orange color, morphs into pale green in summer, and returns to the bright orange in fall. It will grow to some 15 to 20 feet in most cases. 

Sassafras trees make fine medium size specimens with terrific fall color of yellow, orange and red, sometimes at the same time on the same tree. The problem with a sassafras tree is the dearth of them in nurseries. Nobody seems interested, but a single sassafras, or a grove of them (they tend to run in coveys) makes a telling statement. 

They spread from root suckers, but when sited where they are mowed around the problem is lessened, since the mower cuts off the sprouts as they appear. 

Though sassafrases are generally seen as no more than 25 feet or so, I know of at least one ancient specimen in the county that is fully 18 inches in diameter and 50 feet tall. And, you can make the famous tea from their roots. 

A colorful large tree that is rife here in lowlands and highlands alike is the black gum. It is one of the first to turn in autumn, and has fall leaves of yellow, scarlet and orange. They are like polished enamel, with a thick substance and brilliant coloration. One problem is difficulty in culture, particularly in planting. They are not the easiest to succeed with. We have a 50-footer in our front yard that died back to the ground at about age three. I cut it down and it resprouted from the roots, and there it is. Some black gums bear purple berries, so are not suited near sitting out areas.

Just about the queen of autumn — and spring, summer and winter, for that matter — is the sourwood, famous for its honey in the Appalachians. Again, difficulty in catching hold right after transplanting is a problem. I have tried at least four and all died young. I am trying again.

Sourwoods grow to some 50 feet in rare cases, but usually are about half that. Their leaves, like the black gum’s, are polished and heavy, and turn to the most brilliant crimson imaginable in autumn, following their July flowers, little white bells that hang in umbels from the branch ends. They are often still in flower when the leaves turn, and the result is nothing short of sensational. 

Wish me luck with number five and I will wish you luck with number one.


From Poor Willie’s Almanack — In bloom on Veterans Day at Tennessee Dixter: Camellias, roses, ‘Black and Blue’ salvia, red salvia, cannas, fall azaleas, pansies, violas, pink oxalis, mums, fall crocus, lantana, summer phlox, hosta ‘Little Lime,’ euphorbia, cleome, ‘Rose Creek’ abelia, cuphea. Why? Wet summer, mild fall.


JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.

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