First autumn colours from shrubs

Judith Adam

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PJM rhododendron (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)
PJM rhododendron (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)
PJM rhododendron (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)

The several Japanese maples in my garden haven’t yet begun to show their bright autumn colours, but I can see the beginnings of the transition. I know that in another two weeks the garden will be blazing with red, orange and gold leaves. However, I don’t need to wait impatiently for the big show to begin, because so many other shrubs and perennials are already making bright displays.

One of my favourites is ‘PJM’ rhododendron (Zone 5), which has begun turning bright coral red. With next spring’s flower buds already prominently plumped and exposed, the foliage is leaching green chlorophyll and showing vivid colour. Most rhododendrons won’t show red colour in autumn, but something in the genetic composition of ‘PJM’ (and its related cultivars, such as ‘Olga Mezzitt’) causes it to turn a gorgeous red.

‘Mount Airy’ large fothergilla (Fothergilla x intermedia ‘Mount Airy’, Zone 5) is another shrub beginning to colour. It becomes deep apricot, then brightens to intense raspberry, and holds its fully coloured foliage for almost a month. I’ve filled a gap in the front garden with one hedge cotoneaster shrub (Cotoneaster lucidus, Zone 5). This plant is commonly used for deciduous hedges and can be simply cut back and kept under seven feet (2 m) in height. It’s a mass of small green leaves in summer, but when grown in a sunny location, it turns a harlequin combination of gold, orange and fiery red in fall. Another good filler shrub is Virginia sweet spire (Itea virginica, Zone 6). This shrub is shade tolerant, but grows entirely better with at least a half day of sun. It has fragrant white flowers in spring, and the autumn colour can be dazzling scarlet if the shrub is in a sunny location.

Some years ago I acquired a small clump of ‘Max Frei’ dwarf bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum ‘Max Frei’, Zone 4). Its starburst-shaped foliage turns bright red in autumn, and I’ve taken advantage of occasional self-sown seedlings, moving them around the edges of beds to make a red ruffle effect in autumn. ‘Max Frei’ makes only a few seedlings each year, so it’s never a problem. But ‘Chameleon’ spurge (Euphorbia dulcis ‘Chameleon’, Zone 5) is far more abundant with its babies, and they pop up everywhere. I’ve learned to weed it out whenever sighted, but  there are always some I miss. When they begin to show their burgundy leaves with scarlet streaks in autumn, I do appreciate them.

Although I’m still anticipating the big show of colours from red Japanese maples and gold ginkgo trees, there’s already a lot of colour appearing in the garden. These incidental plants make a worthwhile display, and because they’re smaller than trees, we can have more of them.

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2 thoughts on “First autumn colours from shrubs”

  1. Judy,

    Some years I’ve had magnolia and weigela open a few flowers in autumn. This seems to happen following excessively hot summer seasons, or in an autumn with extended warmth. Could these flowers be induced to mature from incipient buds of the current season? It seems unlikely they are flower buds meant for next spring.

    — Judith

  2. I agree with your comments about the beautiful colour the P.J.M. rhodo shrub turns early in the fall. Has any one in the Niagara area noticed blooms on their shrub this fall? There are about a dozen buds that have fully opened on mine, something I haven’t seen before.



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