I like to think of the autumn months as the calendar’s candy shop. Bright colors, sweet sights. Each year the grandest and most august of seasonal shifts lends the landscape a richly saccharine palette. From the licorice red colors of maples to the butterscotch tones of oaks and witch hazels, deciduous trees and shrubs shed their coats as we don ours in preparation for the bustle of winter.
Today I’d like to share with you some of my favorite “candies” from around the Iowa State University campus, my surrogate home for the last four years (and two more). Anyone who has ever visited campus knows of its beauty–a proverbial arboretum of many hundreds of species of trees and shrubs, including woody plants less appreciated than their overplanted counterparts. In that vein, let’s take a walk.
As indecisive as I am, I could easily narrow down my list of favorite native trees to several dozen or so. Near the top of that list is the American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus). Dream no longer of purple smoketree, the purple blight on the landscape. Instead think a little bigger, heftier, and prettier. American smoketree boasts conspicuous, smoky flower clusters in mid-summer, puffing out like billowy clouds of not-so-pink cotton candy. The semi-glossy, bluish-green foliage often holds raindrops, perfect distractions for nebbish, naturally minded kids of all ages. We’ve got three trees on campus just west of Kildee Hall. Each is different. One literally glows in amber and cider tones. One shines in gold, hopefully an inspiration to the sun which these days doesn’t show itself much. The third sports a zebra look with black veins harnessing bands of yellow trapped between.
My next find was a colony of dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii). These happy companions to daphnes and rhododendrons look sumptuous this time of year with rounded, coin-shaped foliage reminiscent of a bowl of hard candy–greens, yellows, oranges, and reds. Perfect for borders or that small bed where you’d like a shrub but don’t have room for a viburnum or weigela, dwarf fothergilla blooms in late spring here in Iowa, sending out bottlebrush-shaped flowers that glisten in May sunlight. Keep in mind that this southeastern U.S. native loves organic matter, so top-dressing with compost never hurts.
Making my way west along Osborn Drive, I stopped by a most elegant specimen of Chionanthus virginicus, our native fringetree. This is one of my favorite Ozarks native shrubs, occuring in southwest Missouri at the very northern limit of its range. Dangling, silvery white blossoms adorn all limbs of the plant in late spring. I love the texture of the flowers, even though I’m not the biggest fan of white in the garden. But perhaps the best part of the show comes along in fall when lime green foliage ages to baked gold, providing a glowing backdrop for chocolate chip-like drupes that dangle where flowers once did (at least on female plants; the species is dioecious). Aesthetics and ornamentation aside, I love American fringetree because it’s tough. This multi-stemmed, large shrub thrives near water and in rockier soils as well. Durable, adaptable, and gorgeous. What more could you ask for from a specimen shrub or woody focal plant at the edge of the shade garden?
Before ducking into my office in Horticulture Hall, I took a quick peak in the courtyard beyond my door between the building and the greenhouses. This alcove of plant life sports collections and fun accessions of faculty in our department. My favorite specimen of Heptacodium miconioides (seven sons flower) dripped in bright pink this morning, thanks to the colorful sepals left behind from the white flowers that finished several weeks ago. Munchable candy they’re not. But they’re damn sweet to look at!
My last plant of note is a red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea). I know…what could be so fascinating about the most overplanted dogwood in American history? Just take a look at this amazing specimen’s fall color. What a trip!? Even the most ordinary plants can earn their keep when you take a moment to look past what makes them ordinary. Great gardens most often feature great plants. But the best gardens feature great plants used in remarkable ways.
I’ll hope you’ll take a trip through the candy shop in your part of the country–hopefully in your own backyard.