Our theory is, if a plant looks fantastic in the September garden, it merits attention. And if it is attractive to pollinators, has winter interest, grows quickly to a reasonable size and is easy to keep happy, then you should absolutely consider finding a spot for it. As I was driving though our little town of Dartmouth the other day, I had to pull over when I saw a picture perfect candidate of such a plant, Heptacodium miconoides, gracing a small streetside garden.
Heptacodium miconoides, or “Seven Son Flower” is relatively new in cultivation here in the US, having come ashore from China in the 1980’s. It bears attractive green foliage, resembling peach leaves, and finally in late summer and early fall, it produces panicles of fragrant, jasmine scented white flowers, which last for a couple of weeks, after which showy rosy red bracts remain. The common name “Seven Son Flower” refers to the 7 branches of blossoms of each panicle. We acquired our first specimen as a plant dividend at the Arnold Arboretum’s Fall Plant Sale in 1989. To our delight, it grew quite quickly, putting on as much as 3′ in a season. We learned after a bit that Heptacodium wants to be a multi stemmed shrub, unless pruned to one or several strong leaders. Our preference was to show off the handsome exfoliating bark, so we removed all but the strongest 3 trunks. If you would prefer to have a single trunk, select a young plant and stake one stem for straight growth.
Heptacodium merits attention for its adaptability to a variety of soil conditions, including soils that remain dry for some time, although occasional supplemental watering wouldn’t hurt. It is tolerant of salt spray, making it useful near the seashore. Other big plusses: Heptacodium is deer resistant, and the butterflies and bees absolutely love the blossoms. Provide it with lots of sunshine. Pruned as a small tree it can be the focal point of a small garden, or planted en masse it would make a showy hedge. It’s perfectly hardy in zones 5-8.
I am just smitten with this Magnolia’s nuanced loveliness….chalices of buttery yellow petals infused with plum and pink appear here in early May, waiting for the last frost to come and go. Yes, it blooms before the leaves unfurl, providing that magic of color against bare wood.
Bred by the late Dr. Augie Kerr, Magnolia ‘Sunsation’ is a hybrid of ‘Elizabeth’ and ‘Woodsman’, and is considered hardy in zones 4-9. ‘Sunsation’ blooms precociously … very young plants try to put on a show which pleases those of us who tend to be impatient. Her form is upright and pyramidal, reaching heights of 25-30′.
Grow ‘Sunsation‘ in a rich well drained soil in sun or partial shade.
Magnolia macrophylla ashei foliage
There is no other way to say it: Ashe’s Big Leaf Magnolia is boldly beautiful. Folks often grow Magnolias for their early spring bloom, but you will want to seek out Magnolia macrophylla ashei for its large green foliage (up to 2+’ in length) which is undersided in a lovely shade of silvery celadon. (Floral designers take note: the foliage is gorgeous when cut and dried for winter arrangements.) Early summer flowers are sweetly fragrant with white petals accented with a red brush stroke and are large as well, up to 1′ across.
Magniolia macrophylla ashei, a Southeastern US native, forms a large shrub or small tree. It’s tropical appearance belies its hardiness as it is easily grown in zones 6-9 (with reports of it also growing in zone 5 with protection). The form ashei is a smaller tree than the straight species, and is often seen as a multistmemed shrub but can be pruned to form a small tree, growing to 15′ tall in its northern most range, and up to 25′ tall in milder climates. Big Leaf Magnolia prefers a sunny or partially shaded place in a border with rich evenly moist soil that has good drainage. Very windy spots are not recommended, as the gorgeous foliage will get damaged. Another positive note…Big Leaf Magnolia is deer resistant.
It would be a difficult choice, but if I had to select one deciduous tree for my garden, it would have to be the Korean form of Stewartia pseudocamellia, and this is why: here is a small tree (25-30′) with striking interest in all 4 seasons. In winter, a mature Stewartia pseudocamellia var koreana shows off its handsome narrow pyramidal shape, which broadens a bit with age, and lovely exfoliating bark, exposing shades of tan, pink and gray. In spring, it breaks anew with fresh dark green elliptical leaves, arranged alternately along its branches. In early summer, lovely 3″ white camellia like flowers are displayed. Each blossom only lasts a short time, but there are so many produced over several weeks that you never feel it is not performing. In autumn, Stewartia pseudocamellia is truly mesmerizing, flashing you with foliage in shades of brilliant red, orange, gold and green.
Stewartia pseudocamellia is native to Japan and Korea, and the Korean form is generally considered a bit hardier. The Korean form tends to have a more narrow pyramidal shape than the species found in Japan. In its native habitat, it is found growing with Clethra barbinervis and Enkianthus campanulatus, both exceptional large shrubs or small trees, with multi season interest. Stewartia pseudacamellia var. koreana grows best in sun or partial shade in a humus rich but well drained soil, out of strong wind. It is hardy to minus 20F and grows well in zones 5-8.
As I get older I am so appreciative of all the trees Chris and I have planted over the years, often as little twigs which we acquired from specialty mail order nurseries or the Arboretum Plant Sale. One that has become our favorite is Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’, a variegated form of Chinese or Japanese Dogwood.
‘Wolf Eye’s‘ was selected at Manor View Farm in Monkton MD, and has been declared by plant expert Paul Capiello to be one of the best variegated forms of Cornus kousa. Eventual height depends on siting and hardiness zone (hardy in zones 5-9), but reports range from 10-20′ with equal spread. Our ‘Wolf Eyes’ is a now 12′ x 10′ specimen. The gray green leaves are delicately rimmed with white, and will curl slightly as protective measure when cited in hot sun. What we find remarkable is how well the white “flowers” (really showy bracts) stand out against the white variegation, when it “blooms” in June. As the flowers fade, curious edible fruit begin to form. They look like red raspberries on short sticks when they ripen in early fall. Fall foliage color takes on pinkish red tints.
Site ‘Wolf Eyes’ in full or half day sun, and, no surprise, in a rich well drained but adequately moist soil. Water well in dry spells., but excessive overhead watering from a sprinkler or irrigation system can cause spotting of the foliage. C. kousa is resistant to Anthracnose, but too much exposure to wetness for extended periods will cause fungal problems.
Perhaps the most asked about plant in our garden right now is this purple leaved silk tree or mimosa, with it’s stunning chocolate purple fernlike foliage. The followup question is often, “but is it hardy” to which we answer, “yes, but…”. (Recommended hardiness zones are zones (6b) 7-10, and our garden is definitely zone 6a.)
This is the scoop based on our experience. Albizia julibrissin ‘Summer Chocolate’ is a fast growing ornamental tree or large shrub, introduced to the US market roughly 10 years ago. True, it is less hardy than the more common green leaved forms. In 2005, our first attempt to establish this tree failed. We didn’t site it well. We planted ‘Summer Chocolate’ in a spot where we thought it would look outstanding, but alas, it was the lowest spot on our property and the soil remains too wet there over the winter. Initially we were resigned to growing it as a container subject, but were reminded by the old adage: if a plant doesn’t grow well in one spot, try another, and then another.
Good drainage usually is key in wintering over borderline hardy plants. We planted the next specimen in well drained soil in front of a south facing stone wall, and are now enjoying this beauty for the 3rd year in a row. It did get some die back after the winter of 2009-2010, but broke growth along the lower trunk and quickly grew to 6′ that year. We won’t expect it to reach full height or width, and don’t really care. Tropical appearing chocolate colored foliage with a shrublike habit suits us just fine.
Those of you in milder winter areas (zones 7-10) can expect this tree to reach 20′ in stature and spread, with silky pink puffs of flowers in summer. Gardeners in zones colder than 6 might consider growing ‘Summer Chocolate’ as a stunning container specimen. The plant, pot and all, can easily be moved into an unheated garage or other protected spot once it goes dormant in late autumn.
Winter Silhouette of our Ancient Oak
We are the brief, but committed stewards of one of the oldest trees in our town. A Quercus bicolor, commonly known as Swamp White Oak, spreads its majestic limbs, covering 6400 sq. ft of garden in the lower area of our property. It stands as a venerable member of an ancient clan, reaching its many arms, some 50 feet long, in all directions, from a trunk with a robust 12 1/2 foot caliper. Although it is no more than 60 feet tall, an understatement for a 200+ year old tree, it’s sublime presence creates a complete and awe inspiring space. Stand in the welcoming shade of its vast crown, place your hands on the deeply furrowed face of its trunk, letting your fingers feel the wrinkles of 200 hundred years, raise your eyes to wander into this living sculpture, home to thousands upon thousands of flying and crawling insects, not to mention dozens of birds, proving a feeding ground for so many more creatures; one of many children not of our own womb, but generously lent to us by the most grand and trusting mother, Earth. Everyday, we take care of this grand old tree, and in return, it takes care of us.
Come and share this sacred space when you visit, if only for 5 minutes. When the time comes for you to plant an heirloom tree, you will see the road of time stretching out before you, and on it, your loving, grateful heirs and when you look behind, the beautifully wrinkled and wise faces of your ancestors.
In the fall, we turn our attention to trees, and this cultivar of Japanese Maple demands the spotlight in our front garden. It shows off earlier in the year, as well, in mid spring, when Acer palmatum ‘Katsura’ begins to leaf out in lovely apricot yellow tones. The new foliage holds that color until warm weather settles in, and gradually becomes a yellow green for much of the summer. In mid October, the leaves will begin to transform from a happy green to blazing tones of yellow, orange and red. The fiery foliage lingers through early November, after which the handsome silhouette of ‘Katsura’ provides structural form in the winter landscape.
Acer palmatum ‘Katsura’ has a dense growth habit that should be pruned to a shape that suits your garden. It reaches a height of 10′ at 10-15 years of age, and can ultimately attain 20′ uncommon or more. It loves humus rich, well drained soil, and will do well in a spot that gets morning sun, afternoon shade. It is hardy in zones 6-8, and possibly in zone 5 in a protected location
Mention the genus Euonymus and immediately people respond with ugh! Burning Bush! It’s invasive! It’s banned from commerce! All valid responses if you’re talking about Euonymus alatus, but we want to cue you in on a different, lovely and until now, uncelebrated Euonymus, commonly known as Asian Spindle Tree.
We first discovered this plant on a September morning two decades ago, when the Arnold Arboretum held their annual plant sale at the Case Estates in nearby Weston MA. Along the path to the barn there was a planting of Euonymus sachalinensis (a.k.a. Euonymus planipes) espaliered along a fence, where the horizontal branches were dripping with the showiest seed pods. The pinkish red seed capsules had burst, displaying dangling red orange fruit. There were no specimens for sale, but we found a source for seed a few years later, and after incubating for 2-3 years in a seed pan, signs of life finally occurred.
This is what you need to know. Asian Spindle tree is native to Sakhalin Island off the northern coast of Japan. It is slow growing as a youngster, but eventually forms a small tree to 15′ with a wide crown. It can be pruned to great effect, as the espaliered version which we so admired at the Case Estates proved. It does flower, or how else would there be fruit, but the blossoms are not the real show. Fall is the season to celebrate Asian Spindle. Colorful September fruit, crimson pink fall foliage. It is amazingly adaptable to soil types, except perhaps very wet ones, and grows best in full sun or part shade. Most often it is listed as hardy through zone 6, but we’ve heard reports from growers who have had success with it in zone 5. Find a spot in your fall garden for this gem.
Japanese Clethra is waiting to be discovered. It is a plant for all seasons, boasting fragrant mid summer blossoms, yellow-orange to red fall foliage, and exfoliating bark in winter. If left unpruned it will grow as a multistemmed shrub or small tree, but we prefer to see it trained to a single leader, with lower limbs removed, so that the showy bark can be better appreciated.
We were smitten when our young plant came into bloom in July. Trios of sweetly scented white, 4-6″, twisting racemes will drip from the branches into August. The ovate serrated foliage, in a shade of dark green, really sets off the white blossoms. Fall color is also striking, ranging form yellow orange to deep red. Although Clethra barbinervis is fast growing, it seems to reach an ultimate height of 15-20′. It prefers a well drained, neutral or slightly acidic soil with adequate moisture. Clethra barbinervis grows well in partial shade, although it will tolerate and bloom abundantly in full sun, if watering needs are met. It can be cultivated in zones 5-8.