Saturday 19 October 2019

Diarmuid Gavin: A Beginner's guide to leaf peeping

Well-chosen trees bring a blaze of autumn colour

In places like Connecticut and parts of New Zealand tourists obsess and delight at autumnal hues as green leaves change to orange, red and russet.
In places like Connecticut and parts of New Zealand tourists obsess and delight at autumnal hues as green leaves change to orange, red and russet.
The long driveway of Powerscourt Estate is flanked by mature trees

Diarmuid Gavin

Did you know that Leaf Peeping is a thing? It's a recognised hobby for many people around the world. In places like Connecticut and parts of New Zealand tourists obsess and delight at autumnal hues as green leaves change to orange, red and russet.

This autumnal leaf colour change occurs when chlorophyll production within the leaves of deciduous trees slows down in preparation for the trees going into winter hibernation.

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Other colours such as oranges and yellows which are already present in the leaves become visible.

And while we are not expecting an outstanding show this year due to the unsettled nature of our summer weather, the autumnal show is always a treat. Last year was exceptional as the long periods of sunshine we enjoyed meant more sugar content in the leaf tissues which resulted in more anthocyanins which is the chemical compound that produces those wonderful vivid reds and scarlets.

Due to our temperate climate, trees from many different countries across the globe are grown wonderfully here. And over the past few centuries gorgeous gardens and parks have been laid down with broad-leafed species which are beginning to look stunning.

A favourite of mine is always the grand avenue of old beech on the long driveway to the Powerscourt Estate in Enniskerry in Wicklow. It creates a breathtaking sight every year when the beech leaves turn orange and the avenue appears like a tunnel on fire. The change will shortly begin and the tapestry of trees in the valley below always looks gorgeous.

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The long driveway of Powerscourt Estate is flanked by mature trees

Most of us, however, have smaller plots, so how do we fully achieve the magnificence that autumn can bring, using trees and shrubs which don't require the room that enormous estates allow? Here's my top selection of tried and trusted autumn beauties, plants that I grow myself, species whose beauty I can vouch for and which will suit the average domestic plot.

Acer 'Aconitifolium' - The full moon maple is one of the best Japanese maples for autumn colour, its ferny palmate leaves turning vivid red and orange. For best results grow in dappled or partial shade with protection from cold winds. Beautiful as a specimen tree in a patio or courtyard situation.

READ MORE: Diarmuid Gavin: Finding a solution to sloping gardens

Liquidambar or sweet gum trees - Produces some of the best autumn colours, a wonderful mix of plums, reds and orange maple-like leaves. However, as they grow to over 22 metres in maturity, they're usually unsuitable for small to average plots. 'Slender Silhouette' is a lovely upright cultivar which grows tall yet remains slimline. Sweetgums prefer dampish, neutral to acidic soil.

Acer griseum (Paper bark maple) - I never tire of the wonderful coppery peeling bark of this maple. And there's more reason to love it in autumn as its leaves turn to a burning red and orange. A delightful specimen for any garden.

Cotinus 'Royal Purple' - Grow the smoke bush for its beautiful purple foliage that turns scarlet in autumn. The smoky part of its name derives from the froth plumes of delicate flowers in summer that can appear to be like a haze of smoke around the plant. It likes full sun in a moist but well-drained soil.

Rhus typhina - I'm watching the stag's horn sumach in my front garden turn a vibrant shade of orange. I think this is one of the most reliable autumnal small trees. If you want something a little bit different, go for Dissecta which has finely dissected leaves, giving a more refined appearance. You will need to remove suckers as they appear to keep the plant contained.

READ MORE: Diarmuid Gavin: How to make your garden look expensive on the cheap

Euonymus alatus - Spindle trees are unrivalled when it comes to fiery fall colour. This, combined with its beautiful purple fruit that splits open to reveal orange fruit and its interesting textured bark, makes it an outstanding shrub.

Cornus kousa 'Miss Satomi' - A good choice where you have room for a tree to spread laterally but you just don't want it to grow tall. The branches are outstretched and leaves turn purple and deep red in autumn.

Sorbus 'Joseph Rock' - Sorbus or mountain ash is a great all-rounder for the small garden. Lots of creamy flowers in spring are followed by wonderful yellow berries in late summer, and in autumn the elegant pinnate foliage turns a deep crimson.

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