Fall rushes in: Are autumnal colours a feast for the senses, or a depressing reminder of winter?

Small garden shrubs and trees are often described as having "autumn colour", as if it was unquestionably a positive boon. Unlike David Randall (see pages 16-21) I'm not sure. This is going to sound grumpy, but autumn colour in a tree can go one of two ways for me. I mean, it's delightful to see those bright reds and oranges. But it can be a depressing reminder that we're only going one way: towards winter.

But leaves are just starting to turn now, and there's undeniably a few months of brightness ahead. So if you are mentally robust enough to long for titians and coppery tones without being sent into existential angst, there's plenty to choose from. One of the most interesting lessons of extended autumn scrutiny is how different trees will be gorgeous at different moments across the season: it's not like they all put their party dresses on at once.

One of the best of the early autumn colours comes from the Smoke Bush. There's a choice of two here: the American, Cotinus obovatus, and the Eurasian, Cotinus coggyrgia. It gets called the smokebush because it forms many beautiful drifts when it flowers in summer, creating misty masses that float above the tree.

The American species has the best autumn colour, just turning at Kew Gardens this week to an already startling range of oranges, leading to an extraordinary colour clash. As for the European version, although it's usually fairly green-leaved there are several purply-black cultivars. "Royal Purple" is a particularly good one. The flowerheads look like pink froth, and after a summer of maroon, the leaves turn in autumn too.

I've seen this plant doing good service as a small shrub in front gardens alongside lavenders and rosemarys. This year, there was a particularly good one in a Chiswick front garden with longer, delicate sprays of foliage, providing a beautiful burgundy foil to a group of deep-red hollyhocks.

For the brightest reds, though, go every time for the Liquidambar, the Sweetgum. Unlike the Smoke Bush, this really is a substantial tree, growing to 20 metres or so. So as a garden tree, you may have to decide at some point to fell it and start again with something else. But that is a technique open to brave gardeners...

Like a maple, only more so, the Liquidambar has elegant five-pointed leaves that look as if they've been redesigned by a top minimalist. Once September hits, the leaves turn from green to an increasingly vivid range of purples, reds and oranges that's exhilarating to see on a shiny autumn day. The colour show is topped off by the tree's spiny little fruit, which get called "gumballs", "spacebugs" and even "conkleberry" in the US.

Even if you never plant one, they're worth looking out for on autumn garden visits – real fireworks. Distraction for even a genuine grade-A grump.

Not just for summer

Cotinus 'Royal Purple'

Keep it small by trimming back hard, or let it grow wide and prosper. A real chop back in spring results in the deepest foliage colours, but will take off the long shoots that produce flowers. £9.99, crocus.co.uk

American Sweetgum, 'Liquidambar styraciflua'

Not just gorgeous in autumn, it benefits from summer-long perfumed foliage that make it a treat to take a nap under. Remember it will grow, however slowly. Try variety "Worplesdon", £14.99, duchyofcornwallnursery.co.uk

Wedding Cake Tree, 'Cornus controversa'

Here's one more for foliage-lovers: see a good one and you'll really get the name – pretty leaves in proper tiers. All varieties turn a satisfying reddish purple come autumn. £29.99, crocus.co.uk

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