Autumn is a reflective time, a slow page-swipe from sultry, busy summer.
As the day length slowly dwindles and nights get cooler, fall wildflowers light up the countryside, and even poison ivy’s fall colors appear to be red and yellow flames licking up into trees. Where friends have patio fireplaces fueled from gas cannisters, my old iron fire bowl is the real deal, replete with smoke that takes me back to days far more ancient than my childhood.
Chores are more earnest now, with fallen leaves heaping everywhere in need of raking or blowing into a mounded kaleidoscope of colorful foliage.
They’ve been there all along, the sometimes-brilliant hues of Autumn. But as Summer wanes, green leaves of deciduous trees start shutting down, revealing the underlying blushes.
Caused by pigments with awkward scientific names like anthocyanin, xanthophyll, and carotene, these reds, purples, yellows, and oranges are slowly being trounced as the thuggishly overwhelming green of chlorophyll starts drying up.
Just as most folks have a preference of pie or cake, we also favor certain fall colors and, by extension, the plants that best exhibit them. Here is my list of top performers in the lower South, with a bare nod to those with less-celebrated brown foliage and hardly a mention of how they all contrast marvelously against gleaming evergreen magnolias.
The most outstanding ones have mitigating issues – weedy or other negative human-centric construct some preening naysayers put on them. Most obvious are the too-easily-spread but intensely brilliant wild “Bradford” callery pears, Chinese tallow, and native sweetgum, which are hands-down gorgeous in the fall.
Though female ginkgo trees shed edible but awful-smelling fruit, both sexes are irresistible for their vivid if short-lived yellow. Can’t top the dazzling yellow and orange of maples and Chinese pistache, radiant crape myrtles, and intensely red black gum, sumac, and dogwood, the latter which is so showy this month I don’t care if they didn’t flower in the spring. Tone it all down with softer, more luminous buttery yellow and orange of hickory, sassafras, and redbud.
A more-subtle beauty I adore is the rusty red-brown of bald cypress, especially with the value-added bonus of how its thousands of very small individual leaflets meld gently into the garden without the need for a rake or blower.
I’m sure I’ve missed a favorite or two, but these are utterly dependable. They make me smile as I walk through their Autumnal glow in my neighborhood.