The Plants of Autumn in Marjorie’s Garden

I acquired my love for autumn as a boy hunting bobwhite quail in November, following my dad and our English setter, Prissy, through Georgia cornfields bordered by blazing red tupelos and sweetgums with green, red, and yellow leaves, all on the same tree. After shooting on the covey rise we would watch the singles sail into a bottom cane break, give the dog time to find the downed birds and the singles times to leave a scent, and then walk to the cane through oak-leaved hydrangeas with russet-red leaves, large and lobed, autumn color at a more muted level.

Dad is gone, Prissy followed by other dogs but never replaced, and I no longer go after wild birds with a shotgun. Autumn comes in late September here in Maine, and the trees are golden-yellow birches that light up the woods, white ashes with spreading crows of purple, and, of course, the red maples and sugar maples. And from late September into October, I can still find autumn color close to the ground in Marjorie’s Garden. I find it in the bright reds and yellows of highbush blueberry leaves, in the scarlet leaflets of Virginia creeper, in the sprawling hobblebush viburnum’s deep reds and yellows, and in the mapleleaf viburnum’s purple-streaked leaves. I find it in the brown-flecked yellow leaves of summersweet clethra and in bright red winterberries.

The following portraits are presented in the order of when each plant displays its autumn colors. As I begin to write, I can look out the window at a corner of Marjorie’s Garden where the fiery red leaves of a woodbine share center stage with the red and purple leaves of a pagoda dogwood. Both have reached their peak. Meanwhile, mapleleaf viburnums have only just begun to turn, while the leaves of summersweet clethras are still summer green. Depending on the vagaries of weather, the show could play through October.

The crimson red leaves of woodbine cling to the bole of a black cherry.

The crimson red leaves of woodbine cling to the bole of a black cherry.

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquifolia)

The leaves of a Virginia creeper, often called woodbine in New England, turn crimson red in late September, a spectacular display against the dark bark of an old black cherry at the back of the garden. The vine also sends its fiery display along the ground in all directions, climbing over an old rotting log left lying near the tree.

Virginia creeper can be found on the lists of vines that are seldom severely damaged by deer. Also recommending woodbine is its fast growth rate, once it is established in the garden. The dark blue berries that ripen in late summer are a favorite of birds, mice, skunks, and chipmunks. I can remember snowy winters in Orono, Maine, when clusters of the dried blue fruits hung like ornaments from leafless stems that traced the outer walls of campus halls – places where no bird or rodent dared to go.

Over the years I have accumulated a photographic portfolio of Virginia creeper growing into tree canopies and upon walls, trellises, and high fences, always admiring its exuberance, a characteristic some label as invasiveness. A native plant, however, cannot be invasive, only aggressive, or fast growing. And isn’t this what we want when it comes to covering a wall, fence, or tree trunk?

In a good year, the autumn leaves of pagoda dogwood turn to a mix of red and purple.

In a good year, the autumn leaves of pagoda dogwood turn to a mix of red and purple.

Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

A pagoda dogwood grows close to the cherry that harbors the woodbine. It was one one the first trees that Marjorie and I planted together and for over a dozen years it has graced our springs with tiered branches of clustered white flowers, our summers with blue-black berries quickly taken by thrushes, and our autumns with a brief but brilliant foliage display. In late September its leaves turn from yellow to a mix of plum and red.

A woodland understory tree, pagoda dogwoods top out at about 15 feet in height. The common name comes from its widely spaced tiers of horizontal branches, a unique form both in the wild and in the garden.

In late September, our Sargent crabapple displays bright red apples among its yellow leaves.

In late September, our Sargent crabapple displays bright red apples among its yellow leaves.

Sargent Crabapple (Malus sargentii)

The Sargent Crabapple does not make most lists of plants with outstanding fall color, but I find a subtle beauty in its early autumn combination of small bright red apples and yellow leaves, a colorful display packed within the closely spaced branches of the perfect small tree. Lacking a central leader, it has been described as a dense, spreading, horizontally-branched, multi-stemmed shrub. Whether tree or shrub, it grows 6-8 feet tall and spreads to 15 feet wide.

The Sargent crabapple is a perfect tree for the small wildlife garden. Pink flower buds that appear in late April open to fragrant white flowers that attract every sort of pollinating and pollen-eating insect, and the 1/4-inch diameter apples that mature in fall are a treat for the garden’s birds.

Mapleleaf viburnum's autumn mix of rose pink and purple is unique among garden plants.

Mapleleaf viburnum’s autumn mix of rose pink and purple is unique among garden plants.

Mapleleaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)

I did not know mapleleaf viburnum before I came to the Maine woods and found it growing beneath a canopy of white pines, a colony of spindly plants that I took at first for red maple seedlings. In Marjorie’s Garden, we’ve come to know it as a robust suckering shrub that can grow to 6 feet tall.

Mapleleaf viburnum’s early autumn leaves are painted with the colors of an October sunrise, French rose pink with purple blotches between the veins. This feature, along with an early spring display of clustered creamy white flowers, make it an outstanding garden shrub.

Summersweet Clethra (Clethra alternifolia)

Summersweet clethra's autumn leaves turn to a brassy yellow flecked with brown.

Summersweet clethra’s autumn leaves turn to a brassy yellow flecked with brown.

Just off the porch steps, at the base of the old white pine, grow several summersweet clethras, a cultivar called ‘Hokie Pink’ that grows to about six feet tall and bears August flowers of a soft pink. Marjorie and I planted them many years ago, about the same time as the pagoda dogwood, and over time they have formed a dense colony of robust shrubs where few other species would have survived.

Following summersweet clethra’s August flowers are small rounded seed capsules, each one-eighth inch in diameter and containing several seeds, all packed into dense spikes. These tan-colored capsules persist into autumn, gradually darkening in color and adding texture to late October’s leaves of brassy yellow tarnished with flecks of brown.

Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)

The leaves of highbush blueberry turn deep red in late autumn.

The leaves of highbush blueberry turn deep red in late autumn.

In June and July, Marjorie and I go to the garden to watch native bumblebees pollinate highbush blueberry blossoms as they forage for nectar. They are a joy to watch as they forage from first light to last, stopping to rest only in a cold rain when they seek refuge under a leaf or flower cluster.

On dewy mornings in August, when the branches of the shrubs are bending under the weight of ripe fruit, we will walk through wet grass to the garden, each grasping a mug of steaming coffee in one hand, a bowl for berries in the other. Holding a cupped hand beneath a cluster of berries – some further along toward full ripeness than others – and moving my fingers over the berries as if tickling the bottom of a child’s foot, the ripest berries will break the fragile connection with their slender stalks and fall into my hand, dark purple-black fruits bursting with sweetness.

As if the spring flowers and summer fruits were not enough, highbush blueberry shrubs delight us again in October with their scarlet red and golden yellow leaves. On close inspection, not every leaf is the same shade of red and some are barely red at all. Some of the blueberry leaves hang on long enough to be kissed by a late October freeze, their leaves covered with needles of ice.

This autumn, if the leaves of our pagoda dogwood and Virginia creeper have been any indication of what’s to come, could be the best in years. And yet, as I write the last sentence of this essay it has started to rain, soaking the leaves of woodbine and dogwood. One windy night will close the curtain on the first act of this autumn season. What follows is anyone’s guess.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)