Native shrubs, small trees add late-fall color

Posted Oct. 23, 2010, at 1:12 a.m.
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Last weekend’s nor’easter may have diminished the season’s color on local hillsides, but in Marjorie’s garden the show is just beginning, if at a different level. As the tall birches and maples drop their rain-soaked leaves to the ground, a variety of native shrubs and smaller trees that we have planted over the past decade are at their peak of color, or just beginning to turn.

Each tree, each group of shrubs, has a history, a story to tell. I pass by them all in the process of taking firewood from the pile at the top of the drive to dry storage by wheelbarrow, and I stop for a moment’s rest to remember.

The Patriot highbush blueberries, for example, are at the height of their fall color now, the deep red and yellow leaves shining in the sunlight. I remember Marjorie planting them many years ago in the heart of the vegetable and small fruit garden. They rewarded our care this summer with a bumper crop of berries, and now with this splendid autumn display.

Around the corner, near the porch steps, leaves of summersweet clethra, Clethra alnifolia, are just beginning to turn bright yellow. These shrubs are a pink-flowering cultivar, Ruby Spice, more compact and shorter than the white-flowering species. Five or six years ago, we planted several small plants in a bed formed by large stones at the base of a tall white pine, close to the porch so that we could smell their fragrant summer flowers from the porch swing.

Clethras are a year-round delight in the garden. The leaves will turn from bright yellow to tarnished brass before they fall, leaving behind slender spikes of tiny seed capsules that persist through the winter. These seed heads still will be there when the plants flower next summer.

Along the wheelbarrow’s path, a group of maple-leafed viburnums, Viburnum acerifolium, also are just starting to recognize the end of summer as their leaves begin to lose their chlorophyll, revealing hidden shades of salmon-pink flecked with purple, autumn leaf colors not found in any other plant, to my knowledge. We have found it to be a durable shrub, even with the viburnum leaf beetle around, and enjoy the clusters of tiny white flowers in spring as well as the heavy fruit set — a favorite of birds — in summer. Ten years in the ground, these plants are about 4 feet high and forming a colony from underground stems.

Just beyond the path, the golden yellow leaves of a mountain maple, Acer spicatum, light up the understory of oaks and birches. I grew this tree from seed sown 10 years ago, and when I stop to admire it, I am reminded of my first encounter with the source of that seed, a tree growing in the shade of tall pines at a Boothbay research site. It was near dusk and the tree was in full flower, lighting up its corner of the woods with upright candelabralike clusters of greenish-yellow flowers. I returned to the site later that summer with the intent of collecting seed, only to find the tree nearly destroyed by timber harvesters dragging pine logs out of the woods; just one of the original three trunks had survived to mature a handful of seeds on its branches. I collected these seeds and successfully produced seedlings, one of which now graces the back of the garden, 10 feet tall and already producing its own seed. (Sowing your own seed may be the only way to acquire this native maple, as I know of no local garden center selling it).

In a near corner of the garden, another native small tree, a pagoda dogwood, Cornus alternifolia, begins its autumn show. Like the mountain maple, it is an understory tree, best grown in the shade of taller trees. In spring it brightens this corner of the garden with large, flat clusters of white flowers. In late summer, birds feast on its purple-black berries. And now, in October, its leaves are colored with a mix of yellow, red and purple.

This is how I spend my October weekends, respites from workweeks in the classroom. I suppose it takes me longer than it should to relocate a few cords of wood, but then moving wood was never the primary objective.

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