We cautioned you here last week about choosing a tree simply on the basis of autumn color and disregarding possible problems down the road with some of them. Well, shoot, where are the ones that have good autumn leaf color and other good qualities to boot?
Some of them are plentiful, i.e. right before your eyes about now, or at least have been over the past few weeks. Others will take some searching out in nurseries or garden centers. Our leaf change wasn’t late this year. It is always well into November when we hit our peak. So in that regard, you have had a chance to observe some of the ones that provide our color explosion here in West Tennessee.
Travel south and east in October and early November and the native service berry, of the genus Amalanchier, will strike you between the eyes with its brilliant orange to red coloration. It is plentiful here and the big hollow off Tyson Avenue at the interconnector used to be rife with them before the beautiful woods there was bulldozed into oblivion and the site was replaced with broomsedge and seedling pines.
Alas, it has now been dozed again and there is no trace of the serviceberry trees or any other presentable picture. The serviceberry is an excellent small to medium tree that offers puffy white bloom in spring before the dogwoods. It is of easy culture in a semi-shaded spot and, in fact, will bloom in much deeper shade than dogwoods.
Another tree in that size category is the sassafras. Yes, it is good for tea, but it offers, also, terrific fall color with the unusual leaves, which might have one, two or three lobes from the same plant. Sassafras is plentiful in the wild, and will tend to sucker, but that is of little consequence if the suckers are mowed away regularly. I have seen old sassafras trees that were 40 feet or more tall. The spring flowers on female trees bear black berries with red stems that are quite attractive at close hand.
We warned last week of root invasion by some of the larger maples, most of them native. Japanese maples, however, do not offer such problems until extremely old age. The foliage color of them is legendary, and the seeds (keys) of some are somewhat appealing. They will germinate, but not come true from seed except in the case of seeding trees. Grafted ones are often expensive, but seedlings make excellent trees also with red or orange autumn color.
Black gums are native of course and have some of the most flamboyant autumn color of any other trees, described accurately as burnished copper or red. They produce black berries doted on by squirrels and birds but they are not messy except when growing over a patio or deck. Plant them well away from the house. Their roots are not invasive and they are long lived. It is difficult to transplant one from the wild, so buy a pot-grown tree. Black gums will get more than 100 feet tall in as many years. They grow in swampy places in their feral state but prefer better drainage when tamed.
One of the most beautiful of all native trees in our area is the sourwood. The autumn color of the leaves is a glossy cerise red, just about the most beautiful of any native tree. They also offer late spring or summer bloom. Each cluster of flowers is borne on the ends of the branches and appear as a group of lily-of-the-valley flowers. The remains of the flowers hang on the trees for a long time and they are attractive right up until leaf change and even into winter.
The only problem I have had growing sourwood is a very serious one, actually about as serious as you can get. They all have died an early death. There are a few in cultivation hereabouts, and some nurseries offer them. In the wild they seem to grow easily in many soil conditions, but plant them on your own property and good luck to you.
JIMMY WILLIAMS is the garden writer for The Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Monday mornings at 642-1162.