I suppose it’s natural to want to extol autumn colour. After all, the main flush of changing leaves is relatively rapid – usually no more than a week or two after the first frosts. In North America the fall happens faster than does our autumnal change, cocooned as we are by the warm swirling waters of the Gulf Stream. I have to say the colours along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the U.S. are truly remarkable – if rather short-lived. I’ll never forget standing in a farm gateway outside Washington DC and staring open-mouthed across a field to a wood cloaked in cascades of screaming scarlet – the leaves of Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) that were taking advantage of the sunny aspect of the woodland edge. Sumac (Rhus glabra), also along the edges of woods in New England, can look stunning when set against the orange and red hues of Canadian Maple (Acer rubrum); it grows well in Britain, but can be invasive on certain soils. Our poor old elder bush (Sambucus nigra) is its native British equivalent and by comparison looks positively dowdy – but having said that, I don’t think you can’t make flower or berry wine from Sumac – in fact I think its sap is poisonous. The British native Field Maple (Acer campestre) isn’t quite so spectacular as its Canadian cousin, nor is it so vigorous or so large, but I do like its delicate foliage and its soft yellow tints in autumn. I think it’s an excellent smaller tree and I’ve planted dozens around the edges of our wood. With any luck they’ll help screen the 400 or so ash trees behind them, that’ll probably start dying in a year or two’s time (see my heartfelt rant against the brain-dead politicians who allowed it to happen).
As I said, people like to praise autumn colours, but I also enjoy autumn textures, which are so different from those of later summer. In earlier summer (before roughly mid-June) the leaves in woods and hedgerow are not a uniform green, as they are after that. But in autumn, texture and variety returns: stems become visible, many large ornamental grasses are in their full tasselled glory, and of course there are those colours. So in our garden we like to plant for autumn contrast, not just colour. We love the lush – almost early summer green – of the wet-loving Swamp Cypress (Taxodium distichum), a native of the southern U.S. States, such as Louisiana. Later in the autumn they do indeed change colour – to a rich amber, then dark brown.
Late flowering clematis also come into their own in autumn, and we are particularly fond of Clematis maximowicziana, which grows up the pergola on the back of the house. It’s one of the clematis you don’t have to prune annually. It’s also a superb plant in its own right and ours provides a winter home to at least two pairs of nesting wrens. Now it’s in full flower and looks absolutely stunning. I love the way its green foliage and clusters of white flowers contrast so vividly with the autumnal hues all around it.