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Fall Leaf Color in the Garden

Not only trees change color in fall. The first leaves to turn in my garden are on the ruellia, a foot-tall plant that sometimes I like and sometimes I decide is a weed. In September, I like it for the pale yellow its leaves turn.

The leaves on the balloonflowers also turn pale yellow — but a few weeks later, and they last longer. The peonies leaves start out with their dark green getting more yellow as the chlorophyll wanes, then taking on various tones of dull gold and pale bronze, and finally reds develop, with subtle combinations and shadings.

The most interesting color combination is on the great blue lobelia: under brown seed spikes, all down the stalks, the base of each leaf is a pale yellow-green, and all the veins, too; the rest has turned a deep maroon. From a distance, since these colors are complementary, it just looks gray-brown. But if you look close, you see a pattern that's both delicate and striking.

The climbing hydrangea has turned a muted orangey tan, but it's eclipsed by a few sprigs of plumbago (Ceratostigma) that grow under it, which turn the brightest red of anything in my garden. One of its little sky-blue flowers remains, in high contrast. This beautiful plant is not quite hardy here in zone 5, and will only grow right next to our house's uninsulated granite foundation. The oakleaf hydrangea is just starting to turn; in previous years it's been a good deep red — the main feature I grew it for.

For years I've enjoyed native lady's rocket volunteering in my garden, but until last year it was all very pale mauve, almost white. Then I bought some from Priscilla Williams that's more purple. In August its green leaves turned an intense deep maroon! The leaves on the pale-flowered ones just turn brown; their only interesting feature now is numerous wire-thin empty seed pods waving above the foliage.

My leucothoe, a shrub which is "evergreen" (though not a conifer) because it keeps its shiny leaves all year, is turning too as photosynthesis ebbs: from deep green to deep crimson.

I'm definitely a sucker for red. I gaze wistfully at other people's burning bushes — the hands-down most brilliant crimson in the landscape — but they grow huge: up to 15 feet tall and wide, depending on variety. Where could I put one?

© Copyright 2002 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 1 November 2002
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p.s. The week after I submitted this, the leaves of the Bloody Cranesbill turned a brilliant crimson.