Playing With Fire

Playing With Fire

Whenever I take a drive around, I can open the windows and smell woodsmoke almost everywhere. Now that days are shorter and cooler it is a privilege to come home and light the stove, yet I come indoors only reluctantly. Outside in gardens, the countryside and the streets of our towns wherever you look, there are bright bonfires happening as plants give their final hurrah before winter.  We are so lucky to live in a temperate climate where we can enjoy autumn colour. Plants that perform at this time of year are to be treasured as the show only intensifies with lower temperatures and light.

Acer aconitifolium

Acer aconitifolium

Many great trees and shrubs that have been in the background all summer are taking centre stage now. Amongst the best are the acers. This family which includes the common Sycamore as well as the palmate or Japanese acers. Thanks to the efforts of nurserymen they are no longer just available to the wealthy but come in a huge number of cultivars. All share common features which are a liking for good loamy soil, a tolerance of shade and a dislike of drought and drying winds. Growth is moderate but the handsome hand shaped (hence the epithet palmate) foliage is perfect for growing herbaceous plants beneath. One of my favourites is A. aconitifolium which as the name implies has foliage reminiscent of a monkshood.  It grows as wide as it does tall and can be quite imposing when it gets mature. The leaves burn scarlet red in the autumn and are held over a long period until heavy frost crinkles them up. They look wonderful deplaned with cyclamen or a small anemone such as ‘September Charm’ which is still going. Acer osakazuki is perhaps the most brilliant of all the Japanese maples and quite a strong grower by comparison with many.

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A. Osakazuki

We may not have spared a thought for our cherries since the spring and early summer but look at them now. Next to my house I am lucky to have a group of bird cherries which are orange, red and gold now. It really looks as though flames are creeping up the tree! Yet for the garden, especially when space is at a premium I like Prunus incisa. These more shrubby cherries can have an angular habit of growth. They still flower in early spring but also turn the most fabulous shades of burnt orange and maroon red now. Added to which they are incredibly amenable and will grow in sun or light shade and even in heavy soil which we have here. I have planted the cultivar ‘Kojo-no-mai’ which is quite slow growing with zig zag shoots and pale pink flowers.

One shrub or tree which is as much of a delight in the hedgerows as it is in the garden are the spindles, or Euonymus. E. alatus is often encountered in garden centres where it’s neat leaves and winged corky bark give it an extra element of ingest in winter. For those willing to seek them out, there are some less often encountered species and cultivars including the wonderful E. bungeanus var. mongolicus which has wonderfully pinkish autumn colour with pinkish fruits produced after a good summer. E. clivicola is a graceful shrub growing to ten feet with slender leaves whilst E. hamiltonianus has produced a number of excellent offspring including ‘Indian Summer’ and ‘Coral Charm’ which are must haves in my book.

Euonymus bungeanus

Euonymus bungeanus

Lindera is a genera of shrubs from the Northern hemisphere which might not have been heard of outside of specialist collections some few years ago but have made a much greater impression recently. L. benzoin is know as the spice bush in the USA, it has scented leaves which turn clear yellow in autumn. My favourite though is L. obtusiloba which has a wonderful erect habit and three lobed leaves which look like molten gold in autumn.

Lindera obtusiloba

Lindera obtusiloba

I feel as though I could go on forever and probably could but I can’t leave you without mentioning a conifer…yes a conifer that I find irresistible. You might have to give up a substantial part of your garden to house it so it’s probably better to go and see it in somebody else’s but hey ho! There are only five genera of deciduous conifer of which Pseudolarix amabilis is the only member of its own genera and superficially resembles a larch. It likes acid soil in which it will grow slowly but happily producing long light green needles which look like butter in the autumn. They make a stately tree over time and ours is just a baby but here’s to many golden October’s to come!

Ross Underwood