Foliage helps light up gardens in the fall

Posted Oct. 09, 2009, at 8:19 p.m.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,

No longer blown hither and thither;

The last lone aster is gone;

The flowers of the witch hazel wither;

The heart is still aching to seek,

But the feet question “Whither?”

Ah, when to the heart of man

Was it ever less than a treason

To go with the drift of things,

To yield with a grace to reason,

And bow and accept the end

Of a love or a season?

— From “Reluctance,” a poem by Robert Frost

I acquired my love for autumn as a boy hunting bobwhite quail in November, following my dad and our setter through Georgia cornfields surrounded by blazing red tupelos and multicolored 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 time 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 different level.

Dad is gone, the setter followed by other dogs but never replaced. I no longer go after wild birds with a shotgun, autumn comes much earlier here in Maine, and the trees are different, golden yellow birches that light up the woods and, of course, sugar maples. Still, I continue to look for autumn color at a different level, and find it in a host of native shrubs.

Walking in Marjorie’s garden, I find it in the bright reds of high-bush blueberry leaves and the scarlet leaflets of Virginia creeper, in the sprawling hobblebush viburnum’s deep reds and yellows and in the mapleleaf viburnum’s salmon pink foliage. I find it in the brown-flecked yellow leaves of summersweet clethra.

Among my favorites of autumn shrubs is common witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana. You can find it in the forest growing as a large shrub, 15 to 20 feet tall with a full rounded crown and a vaselike habit. In the garden, it can be pruned into a small multitrunk tree with smooth gray bark. The brassy yellow fall foliage, like the taller birches of the nearby forest, lights up the garden in October.

It is separated from all other October shrubs — and from all other witch hazels — by the presence of autumn flowers that hug the stems in the axils of the leaves, the four ribbonlike petals of the same yellow as the leaves. The flowers are small, easily overlooked by someone in a hurry.

Eventually, as October’s nights grow longer, the leaves tarnish and drop, but the flowers persist. While it appears that each flower is monoecious, meaning that it is equipped with both male and female flower parts, in fact each blossom is either functionally male or female and cross-pollination by insects, chiefly small gnats and bees, is necessary.

Botanists believe that this autumn flowering habit evolved as a means of reducing competition for pollinators. It would appear that in the October garden, the common witch hazel has the stage all to itself.

Another rain to weigh them down and then a wind to carry them off, all of these leaves will soon be gone. I have always been saddened by it, all of this color gone in the night. Others have felt the same.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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