The root of 3

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The Autumn cherry, Prunus subhirtella "Autumnalis", is a brave little tree, for it produces its delicate blossom in the middle of a British winter. In any mild spell, from late autumn to early spring, it will flush its bare, black, knobbly branches with small white flowers that fade to pink. This is a valuable asset at a time of year when the garden can be so lifeless.

A native of Japan, the Autumn cherry was first brought to Britain in 1911 and has grown in popularity. It never makes a large tree and its habit of growth is very open, so there should be room for one in all but the smallest gardens. Like a lot of cherry trees, its looks unremarkable in summer, so be sure to choose a specimen with a good shape (and consider growing a summer-flowering Clematis through its branches). Its leaves are light green and plain, but in autumn they take on brilliant hues of yellow and burnt orange. To accompany the blossom in autumn and winter, carpet the ground beneath with drifts of bulbs - the Autumn crocus and Winter aconite would be excellent choices.

Crocus speciosus, the Autumn-flowering crocus, comes from the Middle East. As well as being very showy in flower, it grows easily and is inexpensive. From small corns (planted 3ins to 4ins deep in late summer), it produces long-stalked flowers from September through October. Each has broad, mauve petals with deeper violet coloured veins, a centre of bright orange stigma and a heady scent (there is also a pure white form, "Albus", with red stigma). Left undisturbed, a small patch will quickly cover a wide area.

The Winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis, is a member of the Buttercup family, which loves woodland soil under deciduous trees or shrubs - in other words humus-rich and damp. It gives us some of the earliest of spring flowers. It is a small, brown, knobbly tuber and should be planted a couple of inches deep in the autumn. It will quickly colonise the ground, producing its bright yellow flowers in January or February. Each is surrounded by a flat ruff of bright green, dissected leaves no more than about 4ins high.

All three are hardy and together they will brighten the garden from summer's end to the start of the new season.

John the Gardener

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