GARDENING / Going for Gold: Birch, maple, Japanese senkaki

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The Independent Culture
THE BLAZE of red, green and orange in our woods and gardens offsets the sadness of autumn and helps lift our spirits as the days close in. In America, thousands head for the forests of New England to gaze at the warm glow of the landscape before succumbing to winter's privations.

While we can't create New England forests in our gardens, there are shrubs and small trees that can simulate the effect in miniature. Now is a good time to be planning for autumn colour in coming years: with the growing season ended and the soil damp and still quite warm, it is a good time for planting.

Jim Gardiner, curator of the Royal Horticultural Society's garden at Wisley in Surrey, gives lectures on autumn colour, and I went there to seek his advice. There is a huge variety of possible plants and your choice should depend on the size of your garden, which part of the country you live in and to some extent on the type of soil.

Maples and birches are the trees most associated with autumn colour, and they do not have to come in the massive sizes of the American forests. They enjoy shade and thrive in most soil conditions, although they do not like too much lime.

'There are hundreds of cultivars of Japanese maple,' says Mr Gardiner. 'One of the finest is senkaki, which has orange stems as well as brilliant leaves. The colour intensifies from yellow to deep orange as the season progresses.'

Senkaki eventually reaches 15 feet, but all the maples are slow growers. A slightly smaller variety - about 12 feet on average - is osakuzi, whose leaves are among the richest of all the reds. For cramped gardens you can choose the Acer dissectum, that grows like a shrub no higher than six feet, with cascading branches of feathery, russet- coloured leaves. The dissectum atropurpureum has leaves the colour of a dark plum.

A less common maple, but also ideal for a small garden, is Acer grisseum, Wilson's Chinese paperbark. This has an intriguing peeling bark that provides interest in winter after the reddish-brown leaves have fallen. Another group grown chiefly for their bark are the snakebark maples - moosewood is among the best.

There are fewer small birches, but a good one is Betula nana, a shrub that grows to only three feet. Birch leaves usually turn yellow and brown rather than red. Wisley has good specimens of the fairly rare river birch, Betula nigra, a tall tree with reddish bark and stems. Of more modest size, but still only suitable for larger gardens, is the Chinese red-bark, a birch of a pinker hue.

Fruit trees provide colour as summer ends, both from their leaves and their fruits. Crab apples (Malus), produce wonderful shows of bright red or yellow. At Wisley there is a spectacular Malus 'Golden Hornet', whose yellow apples stay on the tree until the end of the year, far outlasting the leaves, and it has a mass of white flowers in spring. For leaves, Malus tschonoskii is best, its foliage turning from yellow to deep crimson in autumn. At up to 30 feet tall these may be too ambitious for many gardens, although they grow slim and straight. Two smaller varieties, no higher than 10 feet, are the red-fruited Malus sargentii and yellow Malus scheideckeri.

Japanese ornamental cherries (Prunus serrulata) have thick spring blossom as well as autumn leaves. Kursar is one that Mr Gardiner recommends as reliable in both seasons - and its slow growth rate makes it garden-friendly.

Prunus subhirtella autumnalis is a compact cherry tree that often comes into blosson quite early in winter, not long after its golden leaves have fallen. Prunus sargentii is larger, its reddish leaves turning bright scarlet in early autumn.

Low-growing bushes can also provide good colour. A beech hedge turns brown in October and stays that way throughout the winter. Many varieties of Rubus, or ornamental bramble, are at their best in autumn, carrying berries as well as bronze leaves. Some, such as Rubus thibetanus (silver fern), have the bonus of dramatic white stems after the leaves have fallen.

Some of the Rubus species are particularly vigorous, with tough, thorny stems, so they are suitable for growing near walls to deter intruders. Many Berberis, or barberries, have the same quality. Berberis thunbergii and Berberis media are famous for their autumn leaf colour as well as their bright red berries.

Among lesser-known shrubs is the Amelanchier - snowy Mespilus or shadbush - which bears a mass of white flowers in the spring, plum-coloured buds in early summer and then shows off its autumn foliage. It needs plenty of sun and is a good subject for sandy soils.

Hamamelis (witch-hazel) is mostly grown for its fragrant winter flowers but some species, including mollis and vernalis, are magnificent in the autumn as well. Mr Gardiner recommends Diane, a red-flowered variety of Hamamelis intermedia, and Sandra, a form of the Ozark witch-hazel.

But a garden over-stocked with deciduous trees and shrubs would look barren in winter, quite apart from the chore of gathering all the leaves. Mr Gardiner points out that some evergreens are also attractive in autumn. He highlights the strawberry tree, Arbutus unedo. This grows to about eight feet, sports an attractive cinnamon-coloured bark and bears pretty orange fruits in autumn. It is not altogether hardy, though, and it may be risky to try it too far north.

I have left the best until last. For many of us, the coming of autumn is marked by the brilliant red of Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus). It is transient - in some parts of the country it will nearly all be gone by now - but in its short weeks of glory it serves as a reminder that the summer has gone and it is time to stoke winter fires.-

(Photograph omitted)