24 November 2017
In parts of the US there is a whole industry built around ‘leaf peeping’. Special trains, tours, guides to the art of admiring ‘fall foliage’. In Japan there is an ‘Autumn Foliage Forecast’, complete with colour-coded map. In the UK there is a more relaxed approach. We prefer our autumn colour languid on the banks of an 18th century lake, or dotted through a London park. We like to happen upon it, hopefully on a clear day, marvel at how beautiful that particular tree is, and then go along on our way. There is perhaps a middle road.
But when admiring this much written about (and to) season it’s hard to avoid fanaticism. Now is the time, when perennials have died back and lawns are too soggy for even the most fastidious lawn-keeper to care about, that trees become starlets of the landscape. One recent drive through Oxfordshire found both driver and navigator dangerously distracted by spines and clumps of gently changing colour marking hog’s backs, river lines and woodland edges. It was beautiful to the point of absurdity. At this time of year the English landscape changes utterly from one of calm verdant layers - like a single colour stage set - to a wild display of citrus yellows, oranges and dark sanguine reds. Light is held in new and different ways, collections of Beech seem to glow. Nowhere is this seen more brilliantly than in our great ‘native’ forests. Built for the enjoyment of various Kings (but namely Henry VIII) these ancient woodlands become vast beacons of bright in the landscape.
On a smaller scale the autumn shift can be more immediately apparent. Some gardens seem made for this turn, keeping perennials to a minimum with carefully selected trees ‘working hard’ throughout the year but really showing off right now. This sort of mini-arboretum, an orchard where leaves and not fruit are the goal, is an assured and low maintenance approach. Japanese Acer will always win the autumn colour competition with glorious range within a single species. Be careful to plant but a few, to avoid pastiche. In a more rural setting Sorbus aucuparia (our native Rowan tree) can work beautifully, as can Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’, and in fact most other Prunus varieties. At the larger end of the scale, the Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) will never fail to please the autumn admirer. It has fine multi-sensory credentials, with its bright and compact compact leaves producing the smell of candy floss as they fall. Lesser known Taxodium distichum (Swamp Cypress) as a deciduous conifer is a more unusual choice but should be on the list, for its delicate alien strangeness and lovely colour shift. But the autumn tree to end them all has to be Fagus sylvatica, the Beech, with it’s sudden but reliable change to bright, crisp orange, contrasting with darkened branches. Whether in vast avenues in the Savernake Forest, clipped in to walls at Schönbrunn in Vienna, or simply as the favourite tree at the end of the garden. They are the Kings and Queens of autumn, and its hard to keep coo about that.
- Elizabeth Tyler