Plant Portraits November

Acer palmatum 'Sangu Kaku' and other maples November 12, 2013At Gibbs Gardens, November is a time when I appreciate the variety of trees, both evergreen and deciduous, that shine in the fall landscape. Among the ornamental trees, Japanese maples are the stars, especially when they display their autumn finery. Favorites of mine include the coral bark maple,also known as ‘Sango Kaku’ and ‘Ryusen,’ a strictly weeping form.

Acer palmatum 'Ryusen' November 16
Acer palmatum ‘Ryusen’ in November

Beyond Japanese maples, there are a wide range of ornamental trees with interesting fruits, colorful foliage and striking forms. Included in this group is one of my perennial favorites, bald cypress, Taxodium distichum.

Bald Cypress cones close up in August
baldcypress cones in August

A native to the southeastern United States, bald cypress (the common name refers to the fact that this is a deciduous conifer and most conifers are evergreen) grows in swampy areas along the Gulf Coast and in coastal areas to the mid-Atlantic, but it also does surprisingly well as an urban tree in dry soils. The fern-like foliage is bright green all summer, but come autumn it turns anywhere from fiery orange to copper before it drops its needles to the ground, forming a carpet of color. The curious cones are small and round. About 1 inch in diameter, they start out green and ripen to a brown color, adding interest from summer through winter.

Taxodium distichum on left on rt Japanse maple EG copy
Baldcypress and Japanese maples

It’s not uncommon for this majestic tree to reach 50 to 75 feet or taller at maturity and live to the ripe old age of 600 years. One of the distinctive characteristics of bald cypress is its “knees.” These woody projections appear above normal water level, usually when trees are growing in or at the edge of water. Their function is a mystery. Some think they may help support the tree, while others have speculated about their role in providing oxygen to their roots. Whatever their purpose, trees with “knees” generate interest and discussion. There are many examples of “trees with knees” at Gibbs Gardens.

Another large deciduous conifer that is similar in appearance to bald cypress is the dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides. I admit that sometimes, at a quick glance, it’s easy to confuse the identity of these two trees. If in doubt as to which tree you have, one way to tell them apart is by the arrangement of the leaves. Dawn redwood has opposite leaves and bald cypress has alternate leaves. Both of these trees make grand specimens provided they have plenty of space. They are also a good choice for street trees where overhead wires are not a consideration.

Chinese fringetree with fall color.
Chinese fringetree with fall color.

For a smaller tree, the native fringetree, Chionathus virginicus, which grows to about 20 feet high and the Chinese fringetree, Chionanthus retusus, which grows 20 to 30 feet tall, make choice ornamentals. The botanical name Chionanthus means snow and flower, an apt description for the white fluffy flowers (often fragrant) that appear in spring. Often overlooked is the fall show when the leaves turn golden yellow, especially those of the Chinese fringetree. There are a number of these trees growing in the Japanese Gardens and a grand specimen on the lawn near the Manor House.

Chionanthus retusus close up of flowers May 10
Chinese fringetree flowers in spring

Another tree that merits a mention for its fall foliage is crape myrtle, when the leaves turn shades of red, orange and yellow. These are just a few of the beauties that await your discovery at Gibbs Gardens in autumn. Visit soon and discover your own favorites.