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Autumn Color to Dazzle in Your Garden  

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The LuEsther T. Mertz Library 
The New York Botanical Garden
2900 Southern Blvd.
Bronx, NY 10458


Noteworthy Books on Autumn Garden Color

Cover Art
Fallscaping - Rob Cardillo (Photographer); Nancy J. Ondra (Text by); Stephanie Cohen (Text by)
Call Number: SB423.4 .O53 2007
ISBN: 9781580176811
Publication Date: 2007-09-12

Cover Art
Fall Foliage - Charles W. G. Smith; Frank S. Kaczmarek (Photographer)
Call Number: QK110 .S62 2005
ISBN: 0762727888
Publication Date: 2005-09-01


Autumn Color to Dazzle in Your Garden


The native American Indians have a tale that in the autumn the Great Bear (the Big Dipper constellation) was killed. His blood dripped down from the heavens and colored many of the leaves red. While the meat of the bear was cooking, the fat dripped out from the fire and colored other leaves yellow.

Nowadays, we talk about pigments and shorter, cooler days when we discuss the seasonal change. During the fall, chlorophyll, the main player in spring and summer (the substance that makes the leaves nice and green), takes back stage to yellow carotenoids and red anthocyanins.

Leaves are in the business of making food. They take water from the ground (through their roots), carbon dioxide from the air and with the energy from the sun, they create glucose (a sugar). Chrolophyll facilitates this process called photosynthesis which manufactures the sugars (food) for the tree.

As days get shorter the trees start preparing for winter. Many plants stop making food in the fall and begin to shut down for the winter. As the production of chlorophyll slows down, other colors in the leaves come to the fore. Yellow pigments that have always existed in the leaf become more prominent. You will notice that yellow pigments tend to stay the same year after year, while reds and purples vary in their intensity and depend on seasonal factors. Why is this?

Red and violet pigments are formed when sugars become trapped in the leaves. During sunny days sugars are produced in the leaves. In the cool fall nights, the veins in the leaves close up and prevent the sugars from moving into the tree. This excess of sugar encourages the production of anthocyanins.

What then is the recipe for good fall color?  In the spring there needs to be plenty of precipitation for the formation of big healthy leaves; in the fall bright, sunny days and cool nights.

Most woody plants and herbaceous perennials go dormant during the winter time. (Evergreens slow down, but do not go dormant.) Autumn is the time when many plants shed their leaves and shut down for the season. Leaves become damaged over time from weather, insects and disease - this seasonal cycle is an important part of the plant's maintenance and rejuvenation process.

As the leaves fall to the ground they decay, and are incorporated into the soil as organic matter. Insects, bacteria and fungi that help break down the organic matter depend on leaves for food and shelter. Nutrients go back into the soil to be reused by further generations of trees. This process is an important part of the forest's ecosystem. Nature teaches us how to recycle. The autumn display is a wonderful celebration and a vibrant announcement of this process.


Trees: Yellow Foliage

Carya     hickory
Betula  birch
Fagus  beech
Ginkgo    ginkgo                   
Liriodendron  tulip tree
Acer saccharinum  silver maple
Acer saccharum  sugar maple               
Acer palmatum  Japanese maple

 Trees: Red Foliage

Cornus  dogwood                  
Oxydendrum  sourwood
Liquidamber  sweetgum
Acer rubrum  red maple
Nyssa sylvatica  blackgum
Quercus rubra  Northern red oak
Acer saccharum  sugar maple
Acer palmatum  Japanese maple

Shrubs: Yellow foliage

Lindera  spicebush
Hamamelis  witch-hazel                  
Clethra  summersweet
Calycanthus  allspice
Aesculus parviflora  bottlebrush buckeye

 Shrubs: Red foliage

Aronia arbutifolia red chokeberry
Disanthus disanthus
Hydrangea quercifolia oakleaf hydrangea
Rosa rugosa                                                  rugosa rose
Rhus sumac
Vaccinium blueberry
Rhododendron vaseyi           pinkshell azalea
Itea virginica Virginia sweetspire
Viburnum virburnum - particularly mapleleaf, doublefile and arrowood
Cornus sericea red-osier dogwood

Shrubs: Orange/Red Foliage

Fothergilla fothergilla
Spiraea spirea - particularly thunberg spirea
Enkianthus campanlatus red-vein enkianthus
Rhododendron calendulaceum flame azalea

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