May is a spectacular month with the deciduous trees in full Autumn colour;
the late harvest fruit like medlars, quinces and pomegranates; rosehips of wide variety of colour and shape and even pittosporum berries in the forest; the beginning of the citrus season with the cumquats in full swing; and the start of the main flowering season for Australian natives like wattles, banksias and correas.In this post, I am focusing on the Autumn foliage of deciduous trees, shrubs and climbers. We are very lucky in Southern Australia to be able to experience all four seasons and deciduous plants provide focal points and splashes of colour in the garden, especially when their backdrop is a contrasting dark green.
I have a lovely book called ‘ Colour in Nature: A Visual and Scientific Exploration’ by Penelope A. Farrant, which explains the scientific basis behind the turning of the leaves well. Basically, deciduous leaves go through 4 colour phases :
Green : Spring and SummerLeaves use chlorophyll in the process of photosynthesis to produce carbohydrates in the leaves, which are then broken down into soluble sugars to be used for energy and stored in the stem and roots of the plant. The green colour of the chlorophyll dominates and masks other colour pigments in the leaves like orange carotenes and yellow xanthophylls.
Yellow and Orange : Early AutumnThe decreased length of daylight and cooler temperatures trigger the breakdown of chlorophyll. Sunny days speed up the process. As the green goes, the yellow and orange pigments become more prominent. These latter pigments are slower to break down than the chlorophyll, so the leaves are now yellow and orange in colour.
Red and Purple : Mid to Late AutumnCooler night-time temperatures increase the rate of conversion of carbohydrates to soluble sugars, but also reduce the rate of the removal of sugars from the leaf, so the sugar builds up in the leaf sap, resulting in the conversion of colourless flavinoids into red and purple anthocyanins. The more acidic the sap, the redder the leaves, while more neutral sap results in purple leaves. These anthocyanins again mask the yellow and orange pigments, and as the latter continue to break down, the leaves become increasingly red.
Brown : Late AutumnOnce the chlorophyll production totally ceases and the starch reserves of the leaves are used up, the leaves die. All the pigments have been broken down, the cells have died and the tissues have dried out. The brown colour of the leaves is the result of oxidation of chemicals in the cell walls as the cell dies, as well as oxidation of the tannins in the leaves.
The intensity and colour range of Autumn leaves varies from tree to tree, place to place and even year to year.Japanese Maples are often redder due to the high anthocyanin content in their leaves.Shrubs like Berberis have wonderful Autumn foliage.Our snowball tree (Viburnum opulus) puts on a wonderful show in Autumn. These photos show the progression of colour from mid-April (1st photo) to more colour in early-May (2nd photo) and will finish like the 3rd photo taken late-May last year.The Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) on my neighbour’s fence is always spectacular in Autumn. Grape vines also exhibit spectacular colour changes. I love the colour combinations of the Autumn leaves of the grapevine with the Blue Morning Glory (Ipomoea indica) in the first photo. The 3rd photo below is a closeup of the grapevine in the 2nd photo, mixed in with Virginia Creeper.Another interesting snippet of information that I discovered in my research was that leaf-peeping, the viewing of Autumn leaves, was a significant contributor to tourism dollars during the Fall in the United States of America and Canada, particularly in the New England region. People, who collect in groups to leaf-peep, refer to their gatherings as ‘leaf peep shows’.
A similar custom exists in Japan called ‘momijigari’ from the Japanese words: ‘momiji’ meaning ‘red leaves’ or ‘maple tree’ and ‘kari’ meaning ‘hunting’.
If you have a burning desire to become a leaf-peeper in Australia, here are a few suggestions:
New England Tableland, NSW
The highway drive from Warwick, Qld, down to Tamworth, NSW is beautiful in Autumn, particularly in the golden late afternoon light. We had some beautiful old English Ash in our Armidale garden, which were always spectacular and would provide hours of raking up leaves. The kids used to love making huge piles of fallen leaves and jumping into them when they were little. Gostwyck Chapel was always worth a visit in Autumn to see its brick walls covered in fiery-red Virginia Creeper.Monaro Highway/ Snowy Mountains Highway
The drive between the coast and Canberra is also stunning with the golden poplars standing tall against the bright light blue skies (1st 2 photos mid-April). The next two photos show the backdrop of deciduous trees to the National Library carpark late April. The other photos were taken late April on the route from Canberra to the coast. Within the fortnight, the poplars had turned from bright yellow to gold.NSW Gardens
We visited the Campbell Rhododendron gardens in the Blue Mountains in Mid-April, and while there were no rhododendron blooms, the colour of the deciduous trees was very dramatic.Red Cow Farm, in the Southern Highlands, also had some lovely trees.
The whole town is absolutely stunning in Autumn! The Autumn leaves look so beautiful against the mellow old golden sandstone walls.
Avondale Gardens, Victoria
If you are up near the Murray River, it is well worth calling into this abandoned old garden from the 1950s in Autumn. See : http://www.nevictoria.com/upperm.htm
Ard Rudah, Mt Macedon
A beautiful old mountain retreat, which we were lucky enough to visit through the Open Gardens Scheme back in 2010.With deference to Autumn leaves, I made myself a felt tea cosy to keep the Winter T2 teapot warm, using a reverse applique technique to create the Autumn leaves.
My daughter Caroline painted this lovely watercolour for me – a fox enjoying basking in the late Autumn sun in a pile of Autumn leaves.