IN GOOD THYME Garden pros list their favorite trees and shrubs for glorious fall color

As I drove by Dugualla Bay Farm north of Oak Harbor this week, I glanced at fields of fat orange pumpkins. Ah yes, it’s October. But what really caught my attention were the rows of blueberry bushes whose foliage had turned red. Not just ordinary Crayola red; it was dazzling, vivid, intense Red with a capital R.

Who wouldn’t enjoy seeing such rich, saturated color in their own garden? Now’s the best time of year to shop nurseries and garden centers for the red, gold, orange, coral, burgundy, magenta and vermilion foliage that makes autumn the most colorful season of the year. I asked three Whidbey Island nursery professionals for their personal recommendations on the best trees and shrubs to plant for a brilliant fall show.

“I love Japanese maples”, says Sally Clifton, owner of Sally’s Garden in Coupeville. “They look fabulous all year, and go out in a burst of color. I have a dozen in my own garden. Personally, I like the green varieties. In autumn they go from gold to orange to red to burgundy.” Another tree she recommends is the “Aristocrat” flowering pear, a compact ornamental with hot orange and crimson fall color. “Dogwood is also beautiful at this time of year,” she continues. “’Cherokee Chief’ has pink blossoms in spring, and the leaves are just beginning to turn scarlet now.”

“Burning bush is very popular,” Sally says of the flaming magenta-colored shrub. “People drive by Coupeville High School or the recycling center, see the mature hedges and want to know what they are. Burning bush is hard to beat for fall color. It stays vivid and holds its leaves for a long time. But if you want something different, blueberry is wonderful. It gives sweet berries in summer and gorgeous color in fall.

“There’s smoke bush, popular for its year-round burgundy foliage, but a variety called “Pink Champagne” is special. It’s more green than purple in the summer and bright pinky-red in fall.”

Clifton says not to overlook evergreens for autumn color. For example, pernettya is a show-off shrub with green leaves, bright red stems and brilliant fall berries in shades of pink and deep rose. Viburnum “Spring Bouquet” is a hardy winter bloomer with burgundy buds and pale pinky-white flowers that blossom from October through winter. “And don’t overlook the winter heathers,” she reminds late season gardeners.

Paul Houser, manager of Bayview Garden Center in Langley, is another Japanese maple enthusiast. His favorite is the fern leaf “Full Moon”, whose foliage emerges lime green in spring, then goes to lush, bright green. As fall approaches, Houser says the leaves turn “incredible orange, then deep, pinky red with splashes of neon colors.” All varieties of maple put on a good show, he says, and suggests the appropriately named “Red Sunset”, “Autumn Glory” and “October Glory.” Another tree he likes for fall color is Stewartia, now displaying burnt orange to russet foliage.

For a doubly colorful shrub, Houser recommends witch hazel, dressed in Halloween orange, yellow and red. A bonus is hazel’s burst of radiant bloom in February or March, when the rest of the garden is winter drab.

At the Greenhouse in Oak Harbor, nursery manager Barbara Hornbaker says that while burning bush remains popular, more and more customers are asking for blueberry. Not only does it provide a delicious harvest, but its bright crimson autumn foliage is a feast for the eyes. Other fall favorites among Greenhouse customers are “Double File” viburnum and staghorn sumac.

In the tree department, Hornbaker recommends the lovely sweet gum and a wide variety of maples. Like Paul Houser, she is partial to “Red Sunset.” As for Japanese maples, she suggests “Rainbow,” with green summer foliage that goes wildly multicolored in autumn.

There are, of course, many other gorgeous trees and shrubs that weren’t mentioned by the nursery professionals I queried. Among them are the spectacular katsura, pin oak, our native big leaf maple and vine maple, euonymus…even the lowly lilac is garbed in autumnal gold. If you have a fall favorite, tell me about it and I’ll share it in this column.

I thought it fitting to end with a stanza from a poem by Kristi O’ Donnell, manager of Greenbank’s Meerkerk Gardens. It was inspired by the Gardens, a wonderful place to view autumn’s glory on Whidbey Island:

Swirling leaves confetti the air

Floating to earth with ease;

A colorful carpet slowly takes shape

At the foot of October’s trees.

Garden questions or comments? Call 675-6611 or e-mail Mariana Graham is a WSU-certified Master Gardener and a member of Garden Writers Association of America.

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