UNITED STATES—There may not be a good time to talk about it this year. The late warmth really put a damper on some of the autumn foliar color. Some trees are dropping their leaves as soon as they start to turn color, leaving only fading green leaves in their canopies. Only the most reliable trees for autumn color, sweetgum, Chinese pistache, flowering pear and gingko, are trying to make up for lost color.
Now, just because these four trees happen to color well and reliably in autumn does not necessarily mean that they are the right trees for every application. No tree is perfect. Gingko comes close in regard to adaptability to a broad range of applications, but provides only bright yellow autumn color. Flowering pear can be an excellent tree in most regards, but it very susceptible to fire blight.
The other two eventually get too big for some applications. Chinese pistache gets broad with low branches, and old trees (that predate the selection of the standardized male cultivar) can be messy with tiny but profuse fruits. Mature sweetgum trees are notoriously messy with obnoxiously spiked mace-like fruits, and can develop serious and potentially hazardous structural deficiency.
There are certainly more trees and plants that can provide foliar color in autumn. These just happen to be four of the most reliable, and most brilliantly colored. Chinese tallow turns dark burgundy and almost purplish, but colors best in response to a sharp and sudden chill. Red oak turns a monochromatic brown like that of a paper bag, but of course, the color does not appeal to everyone.
Years ago, it was advisable to select flowering crabapples and flowering cherries while blooming in spring because that was the most accurate representation of their floral color. (Photographs were not what pictures are nowadays.) This is still good advice. For autumn color, it is probably better to observe trees around the neighborhood, and then identify those that are most appealing.
Once a few are identified, it is easier to research them to learn about their distinct characteristics, and to determine if they are appropriate for particular applications or situations. Some might be too big. Some might be too messy. Some are not as colorful as others. Persimmon has the added bonus of fruit. Crape myrtle blooms nicely in summer. It is better to know before planting them.
One of the big four for mild climates, sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, develops an excellent display of mixed yellow, orange and red, regardless of how quietly autumn tries to sneak in. Of the other three, Chinese pistache is more orange with less yellow, flowering pear is more ruddy, and gingko is only bright yellow. They all get very flashy color, but sweetgum just might be the flashiest.
Some trees can favor one color or another. Distressed trees tend to be more pinkish red. Vigorous trees might have more yellow. Garden varieties were selected for reliable variability; although ‘burgundy’ has more dark red. Only trees that are too sheltered, too vigorous or pruned too aggressively will lack color. Urban trees can get 50 feet tall, but do not get very broad. Structural deficiency, aggressive roots and spiky seed capsules the size of ping pong balls can be problematic.
Horticulturist Tony Tomeo can be contacted at tonytomeo.wordpress.com.