Light up your Garden with the Fire-like Foliage of Autumn - by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

Autumn settles gently into the narrow canyons that form the headwaters of the Hill Country's Sabinal River. The cool nights light a brief blaze of color that draws thousands of visitors to the trails of the Lost Maples State Natural Area. They come to wander under the mossy branches and brightly colored leaves of the bigtooth maples. Many make this pilgrimage on an annual basis, celebrating that most fleeting of Texas moments, when the scales finally tip and summer is gone. I count myself among the pilgrims, returning year after year, anxious for that glimpse of a season that seems more dream-like than fact.

The bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum) is a relic species left over from the last ice age that somehow has managed to hang on in the niche like canyons. The very fact that they are still with us underscores the poignancy of their autumnal display. It is a tough, determined survivor, not unlike Texas gardeners, who can relate to the "wrong place at the wrong time" adaptability of these trees. Until just a few years ago, most Texans assumed that fall color was something that required round trip tickets, however, since the 1980's; folks have been experimenting with a variety of colorful natives and imports. To the surprise of many, we actually have a nice selection of fall color plants to choose from, and there really is no excuse why we can't bring a touch of Lost Maples to our own backyards

Bigtooth maples make an excellent landscape tree. Though slow growing, they are disease resistant, and appropriately scaled for most suburban and urban lots, rarely growing more than thirty feet tall. They have proven to be well adapted to both sunny and semi-shaded sites throughout Central Texas. Bigtooths tend to be expensive, because of their slow rate of growth and rarity, but they are an investment the color starved among us will not regret. Their vibrant colors range from red, to oranges, yellows, and gold. I recommend purchasing the plants at this time of year so you can see the color that the individual trees are turning. In my experience, they remain true to hue, season after season. Try planting them in small groves for contrasting colors and a showier display.

Another sure-fire autumnal performer is the Texas native, rusty blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum). The longwinded common name refers to the minute rust colored "hairs" and blue-black fruit of this small tree. Rusty blackhaw offers year round interest with its springtime flowers, glossy leaves, and wildlife attracting fruit- but its star really shines in the fall. In my former garden, I had at least six of these plants and the fall colors ranged from a buttery yellow to maroon. Rusty blackhaw viburnums are fast growing, and can be used as stand-alone ornamentals or as a privacy hedge. I've noted that they seem to take on brighter colors when they are planted in full sun.

On my November treks to Lost Maples, the first roadside plant that really catches my eye is the common prairie flame leafed sumac (Rhus lanceolata). These rangey little trees live up to their names, providing intense bursts of autumnal color. They seem to be able to grow in even the most inhospitable spots, often popping up along fence lines and limestone ledges. Like the rusty blackhaw, this is a plant of many virtues: birds love the nondescript fruit, they bloom during the drab dog days of summer, and they survive even the fiercest droughts. Prairie flame leafs blend in well in "wildscape" settings, or those parts of your garden beyond the reach of a water hose.

Mexican buckeye (Ugnadia speciosa) is a fall color plant for those who already have trees. This large native shrub is well adapted to tree lines where they remain shaded for much of the day. They will grow in full sun, though they prefer some protection from the heat of our summer afternoons. The fall color of Mexican buckeye is very predictable- a strong, clear yellow. Some find this boring, but I love the way that it lights up the darker corners of the garden around Thanksgiving. Their real claim to fame are their exquisitely detailed pink flowers, which provide a subtle springtime show.

Call me sentimental, or even anti-environmental, but there is one plant I can't resist, even if it is a tender babe in our Texas woods. I will not deny myself, or my new garden, a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). This little tree wouldn't last more than a few weeks in the canyons of the Sabinal, or even in my own backyard if I didn't coddle it, but the pay off for the coddling is so spectacular. The finely textured leaves and intense autumnal displays are counted among the glories of the gardening world. In a few days, I will be working an extravagantly rich bed of compost and soil for the single Japanese maple that will greet visitors to my front door. Sheltered from the sun, and faithfully watered, it will serve as my signal flag to the neighborhood that fall has come.

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