Autumn in Mount Pleasant Cemetery

I know I promised you the second half of my orange-for-October colour treatment, but I needed a little taste of fall today. I needed a vision of October red, orange and gold before the rain and wind sweep in tomorrow and turn the delicate, tree-borne flags of autumn into sodden layers on the ground. So I did what I’ve done for more than twenty years now:  I drove to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, just ten minutes from my home, and parked my car. The cemetery’s 200 acres make it one of the biggest arboretums in Canada, and its roads criss-cross under a forest of stately trees, many with labels affixed to their trunks providing the botanical and common names. It is quiet, solemn, a place to reflect on life, death, and the seasons. I have spent hundreds of hours photographing these trees in spring, summer, autumn and winter; I know them well. Here are just a few that called out to me today.

Driving down Mount Pleasant, it was easy to pick out the neon-pink of the burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) outside the iron fence.


Just inside the gate was an Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra) turning golden-apricot.


There are massive sugar maples (Acer saccharum) near the entrance, and they’d begun their sunset colour transformation,too.


Many species of maples were turning colour. Below is red maple (Acer rubrum) – a variable autumn-colouring species, that can turn yellow, deep red, pale orange or mottled, like this tree.


Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) had become a pretty lemon-yellow.


Freeman maple (Acer x freemanii) is a popular hybrid between red maple and silver maple, and that marriage of pigments often manifests in the colour change, with red and yellow pigments keeping their distance in the leaf.


The elegant fullmoon maple (Acer japonicum) always transfixes me, especially the fringed leaves of the cultivar ‘Aconitifolium’. Today, I stood underneath the tree to soak in the deep russet and scarlet tones.


There are several wonderful, big hickories at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, and this bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) stands like a stately sentinel beside the handsome mausoleum.


I was mildly shocked that in all the years I’ve photographed in the cemetery, I somehow missed the seven-sons tree (Heptacodium miconoides). This is its colourful second act, after the September flowers fade and the calyces turn a pretty rose-pink.


The leathery, witch-hazel-like leaves of the parrotia (P. persica) had taken on their mottled red, pink and orange colours, before falling on the small tombstones beneath it.


All the birches had exposed the underlying carotene pigments that turned their elegant leaves bright yellow. This is European silver birch (Betula pendula)….


… and this is North American paper birch (Betula papyrifera).


Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.) leaves were glowing red and orange, the third season of beauty for this native, following their delicate white May flowers and tasty June fruit.


Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) leaves had taken on gold and bronze tones.


The wind was picking up and the air was cold as I headed to my car. I gazed up at one of the magnificent white oaks (Quercus alba) turning crimson and bronze, its massive branches held aloft.  Many of Mount Pleasant’s white oaks were already mature trees when the cemetery opened on November 4, 1876. One hundred and forty years ago this week.



Fall Foliage: Orange, Apricot & Bronze

What would autumn be in the northeast, without the blaze of sugar maples in our forests and gardens?

Acer saccharum-Sugar maple

In Ontario such a thought is inconceivable, but they’re just one species of many whose foliage turns salmon, orange, apricot, peach or bronze, once chlorophyll disappears in autumn and exposes the secondary pigments, whose role it is to harvest sunlight to feed the plant. Now that I’ve escorted you through the red part of the hardy autumn trees & shrubs in my last blog, let’s have a look at some species that turn those spectacular orange shades.  Sugar maples (Acer saccharum), of course, are so predominant in northeast North America, they seem like the iconic poster child for colour change. Rarely, however, do they turn a solid orange like the tree below…..

Acer saccharum-sugar maple2

Instead, their leaves transform to yellow, orange and scarlet according to conditions of sun and shade, and also according to how much sugar has been metabolized to bring on the synthesis of anthocyanins seen in the colour change of many red maples (Acer rubrum).

Acer saccharum leaves-Sugar maple

A few of the Asian maples take on orange hues as well. Just outside my own Toronto living room window is my nearest and dearest connection with orange autumn foliage – a common Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) that has now been with me long enough for its branches to caress the 2nd floor guest room windows (much to my window-washer’s dismay), and to offer, absolutely free, the most beautiful fall colour show each October or early November.  This lovely tree has been growing against my old house’s front wall for more than 25 years, and is protected from fierce north winds while enjoying the warmth of the sun from the south.  That’s not to say it’s entirely happy; it always loses a few young boughs in an unusually cold winter, and freezing rain after a heavy snow has sheared off a big limb. But it’s this autumn transformation that makes it such a treat, with colours ranging from deep scarlet to the softest apricot.

Acer palmatum-Japanese maple

From inside the living room, it’s like looking through a tracery of amber lace, which is why I’ve never wanted drapery or blinds on my windows and instead decided on a fringe of blown-glass witches’ balls to catch and refract the sunlight.

Acer palmatum-Witches' Balls

There is nothing more beautiful than those delicate leaves – the subject of so many fine Japanese woodblock prints over the centuries.

Acer palmatum-Japanese maple leaves

Another beauty from Asia – this time from central China – is the elegant paperbark maple (Acer griseum) with its glossy, peeling, copper-toned bark, and its wonderful deep orange-scarlet autumn colour. I grow this species in my own garden, but this beautiful specimen is in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery. It is simply one of the best trees for a small garden and, if possible, should be placed where its lovely bark can be seen in winter.

Acer griseum-Paperbark maple

There’s another little Asian maple that is rather rare in gardens in North America, but seems perfectly hardy and should be used more: ivy-leaved maple or vine-leafed maple (Acer cissifolium). Multi-stemmed and used as a small tree or large shrub, it’s especially beautiful in October when its foliage turns a gold-suffused-apricot.

Acer cissifolium-Ivyleaf maple

Then there is Manchurian maple (Acer mandshuricum), yet another small, fine Asian maple that takes on soft orange-yellow tones in fall.  I am so fortunate to have these rarer maples in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Acer mandshuricum-Manchurian maple

From Korea comes a lovely shrub with waxy, fragrant, white spring flowers called Korean abelia (Abelia mosanensis). In autumn, the foliage turns a rich salmon-orange.

Abelia mosanensis-fall

Many Japanese cherries turn colour in autumn.  Sargent’s cherry (Prunus sargentii) often turns a spectacular mix of deep salmon and dusky rose-pink….

Prunus sargentii-Sargent's cherry

…while the hardy Japanese cherry hybrid ‘Accolade’, below (one of whose parents is Prunus sargentii), usually develops a good peachy-orange colour.

Prunus 'Accolade'-Japanese cherry

Even the hardiest and most common of the Japanese cherries, Prunus serrulata ‘Kanzan’ – shown here in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery – puts on a pretty, soft-apricot show each autumn.

Prunus serrulata 'Kanzan'-Japanese cherry

What else comes from Asia and turns orange in fall? Korean mountain ash (Sorbus alnifolia), also called the alder-leafed whitebeam, is a small, hardy, underused tree with small red fruit and apricot-orange leaves.

Sorbus alnifolia-Korean mountain ash

European mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) also puts on a good orange show in fall, both the leaves and the fruit clusters (until the birds finish with them).

Sorbus aucuparia-Mountain ash

What about oaks? Though there is great variability in the colour of senescing fall leaves, a number of hardy oaks pass through spectacular shades of orange and copper. Perhaps the most dependable is pin oak (Quercus palustris), with its finely-cut, narrow leaves. To see this tree on a sunny October day is to celebrate the joys of autumn. Coupled with that, pin oak is fast-growing, easy to cultivate and pollution-tolerant.

Quercus palustris-Pin oak

Red oak (Quercus rubra) is a majestic tree that will infuse the forest canopy with honey-gold and russet-orange, sometimes with wine-red highlights. Indeed, all these colours can sometimes be found on a single red oak bough in autumn.

Quercus rubra-red oak

We scarcely need to look outside our native flora for oaks to use in our gardens, but there’s one half-native-half-exotic hybrid pyramidal oak that’s perfectly suited for very small gardens, given its narrow, columnar bearing.  It’s the Crimson Spire™ oak, (Quercus x bimundorum), a hybrid of English oak and white oak, which gives beautiful russet-orange autumn colour.

Quercus robu -'Fastigiata'-columnar English oak

Besides oaks, beeches are the quintessential stately autumn tree for bronze-gold-orange fall colour. That holds true for our native American beech (Fagus grandifolia), below, alas currently experiencing the deadly ravages of beech bark disease in my area…

Fagus grandifolia-American beech

…. or the European beech (Fagus sylvatica) and its various cultivars and forms, including copper beech.  I particularly love the fernleaf beech (F. sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’), below, one of the most graceful of trees, with soft apricot fall color;

Fagus sylvatica 'Asplenifolia'-Fernleaf beech

And there are a few rare Asian beeches, like Fagus orientalis,below, with its rich fall colour.

Fagus orientalis-Oriental beech

Another beautiful, large tree is the Japanese zelkova (Zelkova serrata), which always turns colour in autumn, though it can be red, soft orange, as below, or yellow, depending on the tree and the exposure.

Zelkova serrata

Not all ash trees exhibit colour change in fall, but white ash (Fraxinus americana), below, can often be counted on to make a beautiful show.  (Sadly, the emerald ash borer is wreaking devastation on this genus in my part of North America and no one will be planting ashes for a long time.)

Fraxinus americana-White ash

What about a conifer that turns orange in autumn before shedding its needles? There are two, actually, but since bald cypress isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, let’s give a cheer for the lovely dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides).

Metasequoia glyptostroboides-Dawn redwood

A small and rather rare tree that often inspires a curious double-take in autumn is the pillar crabapple or Chonosuki crabapple (Malus tschonoskii). Its fall hues are much more vibrant than most crabapples, a gorgeous mix of gold, apricot and salmon, on a tidy tree that should be grown much more often.

Malus tschonoskii-Pillar apple

From the forests of eastern North America come two smallish trees that turn apricot-gold in October. Both are members of the large birch (Betulaceae) family and much-loved for their hard wood – a  trait commemorated in their respective, and confusingly similar, common names.  Let’s start with American hophornbeam or ironwood (Ostrya virginiana). an understory component of forests from Nova Scotia to Texas. That genus name comes from the Greek word ostrua for “bone-like”, which gives a clue as to its hardness; traditional uses have included tool handles and fence posts.

Ostrya virginiana-Ironwood

The second small North American native is Carpinus caroliniana, also known by the similar common names of American hornbeam, ironwood, musclewood and blue-beech. I really love this tree, and if I were starting my garden from scratch, I’d make sure it included one. Look at the beautiful honeyed-apricot fall colour below….

Carpinus caroliniana-American hornbeam

I cannot talk about orange fall colour without mentioning smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria).  Some autumns, the leaves of this large, multi-stemmed shrub are almost a neon orange and are especially thrilling when backlit by the sun.  This is the wine-leafed cultivar ‘Purpureus’ – note the little wisp of left-over “smoke”.

Cotinus coggygria 'Royal-Purple'-Smoke bush

I mentioned fothergillas in my blog on red fall colour, but in fact they can also be among the best orange-leafed shrubs in autumn; it just depends on the season. And often, all colors are present in the shrub. In fact, I can promise you that if you plant one, you will be delighted with its foliage change in fall. Here is Fothergilla gardenii at the Toronto Botanical Garden.


Taking a page from its red-hued cousin, the burning bush, the common European spindle-tree (Euonymus europaeus) has excellent salmon-coral fall colour when grown in sufficient sun. The one below has decided to re-flower in autumn (something that happens in many plant families, given a long summer and enough time for a few of the current year’s growing buds to mature within a single season, rather than waiting for the following spring).

Euonymus europaeus-Spindle tree

And though I’ve mentioned the ‘Rosy Glow’ Japanese barberry in my discussion of red fall colour, common barberry (Berberis vulgaris) – despite its bad reputation for invasiveness and alternate-hosting of disease – is no slouch in the autumn fireworks department.

Berberis vulgaris-Common barberry

When I was designing gardens in the 1990s, I would often include Peking cotoneaster (C. acutifolius), a serviceable shrub for hedging or screening that was off the radar of most gardeners, but one I appreciated for its ease of cultivation in any soil and its beautiful mottled autumn leaf colour.

Cotoneaster acutifolius-Peking cotoneaster

Many spireas take on soft peach-apricot-gold tones in fall. Given their ubiquity –especially Van Houtte spirea (Spiraea x vanhouttei) hedges, below — it’s a good thing that they have something to offer long after their spring flowers fade.

Spiraea x vanhouttei

I have a soft spot for my final shrub, given that it grows in my back garden and its fall colour change is part of a dramatic duet with a stunning neighbouring perennial – a “twofer” (well threefer, if you count the white fall snakeroot, Actaea simplex) that extends the season well into November.

Rhus-typina-'Bailtiger'-Tiger Eyes sumac-my garden

Not that Tiger Eyes™ sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’) doesn’t hold its own through spring and summer: no, those ferny, chartreuse leaves add a luminous pool of light to a shady corner in my garden for months on end. But in October, when the autumn monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’) finally opens those cobalt-blue flowers atop tall, thick stems just in time for the sumac to transform itself into a lacy, apricot confection, it is simply my favourite moment in the garden.


My final plant for orange fall colour is a perennial grass, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), below.  In October, this wonderful, warm-season grass takes on soft-orange hues that speak of autumn on the prairie. And like all fall colour change, it signals a stirring last hurrah in the growing season, a time for cheering before the frosts of November subdue the garden palette and the snows of December finally subsume it. Until next year.

Schizachyrium scoparium-Little bluestem

Fall Foliage: The Reds

I adore October.  It seems that the chaos and physical demands of summer in the garden have finally subsided to a manageable few, and there’s time to enjoy what John Keats praised in his lovely ode To Autumn:  “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness! Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun”  Best of all, for us here in the northeast – provided there’s been ample summer sunshine coupled with sufficient rainfall and a smattering of cool fall nights – blazing colour then decorates the forests and gardens like jewel-toned filigree, a brilliant swan song to summer.

Autumn leaf canopy

I’ve been photographing autumn-coloured trees, shrubs and perennials for a long time, both in botanical gardens and in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, a fabulous 200-acre arboretum just a 5-minute drive from my house. So I’ve amassed a large inventory of the very best plants and have filed them by their specific pigment change, whether red, orange or yellow. (More on that below). In fact, I’ve even made up some small cards that group many of these fall lovelies by very narrow gradations.  Here is today’s blog colour.


Leaves, of course, are made up of tissues, tissues are made up of cells, and the cells responsible for leaf colour are those which contain the chloroplasts. These contain the chlorophyll pigment necessary to power the complicated harvesting of solar energy, groundwater and atmospheric carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, which produces the sugars necessary for the tree’s survival. Chlorophyll absorbs energy in the form of sunlight, but only in specific portions of the spectrum; the parts it doesn’t utilize contain the green light waves, and it is these that are reflected back at us, giving the apparent green colour to leaves. Once the days shorten and temperatures cool in fall, photosynthesis ceases and the chlorophyll breaks down. But leaves also contain secondary pigments which absorb some of the other spectral light waves during photosynthesis, and take longer to break down. It is these pigments, the yellow and orange carotenoids that appear in sugar maples (shown in the aerial photo below near my own cottage garden on Lake Muskoka, Ontario), silver maples, beeches,elms, birches,tamaracks, hickories and countless other fall-turning trees, shrubs, and even perennials like Solomon’s seal. (I’ll be dealing with orange and yellow fall colours in two upcoming blogs).


Notice I haven’t said anything about red colours yet. Botanists have come to a different conclusion on why leaves turn a brilliant red, since anthocynanin pigments – which are water-soluble and absorb all spectral light except red, therefore reflect that hue back at our eyes – are not present in the leaf until late in the season, when they synthesize in the tissues as photosynthesis comes to an end.  It is theorized that, in certain species, anthocyanins act as a kind of sunscreen for leaves (see the explanation in the second paragraph of this report), shielding the chloroplasts from damaging UV rays as they prepare to senesce (wither and drop) during late season photosynthesis. The salient conclusion from the report: “Because anthocyanins strongly absorb blue-green, the accumulation of anthocyanins in red autumn leaves may attenuate the quality and quantity of light captured by chlorophylls and carotenoids as leaves senesce. The major activity during leaf senescence is nutrient resorption for leaf production during the next growing season. Thus, protection from excess irradiance may play a role in limiting oxidative damage that may interfere with the retrieval of inorganic nutrients from senescing autumn leaves.”

Enough of the science. Now, I’d like to have you join me as I paint the town (and garden) a rich, ruby-red with some of my favourite trees, shrubs and perennials.  Let’s start with a genus that most of us enjoy, whether it’s in our own gardens or in the woods around us: tbe maple (Acer).  Perhaps the most iconic – and earliest to turn colour – is the red maple (Acer rubrum), beloved by Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), who wrote in his famous journals: “How beautiful, when a whole tree is like some great scarlet fruit full of ripe juices, every leaf, from lowest limb to topmost spire, all aglow, especially if you look towards the sun! What more remarkable object can there be in the landscape? Visible for miles, too fair to be believed. If such a phenomenon occurred but once, it would be handed down by tradition to posterity, and get into the mythology at last.”  How lucky, then, for Thoreau and for us that most red maples turn colour each fall – though not all turn red. On my lakeshore in central Ontario, neighbouring red maples turn bright red and bright yellow – reflecting the sex of the trees, since Acer rubrum employs a variety of reproductive strategies, including male, female and hermaphrodite trees. Here are three leaves I collected beneath various red maples in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.


And here is my favourite red maple in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Acer rubrum-Red maple tree

And let me add that standing under the boughs (below) of that red maple in October inspires a flush of romance in me not dissimilar to Thoreau’s effusive praise for the tree.

Acer rubrum-Red maple

When red maple is crossed with silver maple (Acer saccharinum), you get a hybrid called Freeman maple (Acer x freemanii), some of which turn a copper apricot, or lemon yellow streaked with red, or pure red, when a good selection such as ‘Autumn Blaze’ is cloned.  Freeman maples are fast-growing like silver maples but do not break as easily, and have the advantage (usually) of excellent autumn foliage, like the one below in Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Notice the silver maple influence on the leaf shape.

Acer x freemanii

Japan has give us a number of lovely ornamental maples. The best pure-red autumn color tends to come from the wine-leaved forms of Acer palmatum such as ‘Bloodgood’, or any in the Atropurpureum group. This is what I found one November as I visited the cemetery. You can understand what it looked like the previous day before frost hit the tree and caused it to drop its leaves (abscission is the scientific term) in this perfect red carpet.

Acer palmatum Atropurpureum group

Many of the threadleaf Japanese maples (Acer palmatum Dissectum Group) will turn red, though more often a salmon-orange. This is the cultivar ‘Waterfall’ in a good autumn at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Acer palmatum Dissectum Group 'Waterfall'

And I love the lacy leaves of the fullmoon maple (Acer japonicum) cultivar ‘Aconitifolium’ as they turn red in fall. This one was at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium'-Fullmoon maple

Ultra-hardy Amur maple (Acer ginnala) will often turn bright red, especially the selected forms. Here it is at Toronto Botanical Garden, showing variation in side-by-side shrubs.

Acer ginnala-Amur maple

Sweet gum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) often turned mottled shades of red, orange and yellow – and those are my favourite. But some, like the one below at the Toronto Botanical Garden, turn clear red.

Liquidambar styraciflua-Sweet Gum

Sour gum or tupelo trees (Nyssa sylvatica) are at the northern edge of their hardiness zone in my part of the world, so aren’t often seen. But there are two in Mount Pleasant that I adore in autumn.

Nyssa sylvatica-Sour Gum

Oak trees are variable in colour (and the leaves contain tannins, which causes them to persist as brown leaves through winter) but good red-russet fall hues are often seen in white oaks (Quercus alba), like the majestic old specimen below, at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

Quercus alba-white oak

And the Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii) will usual colour deep cherry-red in autumn, like this young tree at the Toronto Botanical Garden.


Serviceberry trees and shrubs (Amelanchier sp.) also turned a mottled scarlet-orange in early autumn – a delightful sayonara from such useful native species, with their lovely edible fruits.  These are the changing leaves of Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis).

Amelanchier laevis-Allegheny serviceberry

Moving on to the dogwoods, here is the Kousa dogwood from Asia (Cornus kousa) with its rich red colour and next year’s buds clearly visible.

Cornus kousa-Kousa dogwood

Our native alternate-leafed or pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) takes on a wine-red color in fall. This one at the Toronto Botanical Garden gets a nice contrast boost from its background of a redbud (Cercis canadensis) turning yellow for fall.

Cornus alternifolia-Alternate-leaved dogwood

And let’s not forget the common shrub we often love to hate for its wandering ways, staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). Here it is during a brilliant October sunset on the granite ridge behind my Lake Muskoka cottage.

Rhus typhina-Staghorn sumac

Burning bush (Euonymus alatus) with its neon pinkish-red tones is probably the most spectacular of the fall-coloured shrubs. Below are two views of the dwarf burning bush (E. alatus ‘Compactus’) hedge in my own front garden. Here it is from the east…

Euonymus alatus 'Compactus'-Burning bush

…and from the west, in another year with more red than pink in the mix.

Euonymus alatus 'Compactus'2-burning bush

Oak-leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) usually turns a lovely, deep plum-red in autumn.

Hydrangea quercifolia - Oak-leaf hydrangea

Many of the Asian witch hazels take on good red-russet tones in autumn. (Eastern witch hazel, on the other hand, turns a luminous gold.)  This is Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’.

Hamamelis x intermedia`Diane'-Witch hazel

Barberries – love ‘em or hate ‘em – take on a variety of rich autumn tones, from scarlet to orange. This is the Berberis thunbergii ‘Rosy Glow’ in my own garden, consorting nicely with fall monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’).

Berberis thunbergii 'Rosy Glow'-Barberry

Forthergilla is another native northeastern shrub that takes on amazingly beautiful, mottled fall colours. Here is dwarf fothergilla (F. gardenii) in my own garden, showing more red than the oranges and golds that often combine with it.

Fothergilla gardenii

And what about vines? Probably the best-colouring is our native Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). In a site with lots of sun, like the building wall below at the Toronto Botanical Garden, you can expect a stunning red show in October. Where there’s a little more shade, this vine takes on beautiful, mellow tones of burgundy and soft pink.

Parthenocissus quinquefolia-Virginia creeper

Let me finish with a few perennials whose leaves do their own autumn thing. Here is one of the better cranesbills, Geranium wlassovianum, with its leaves just beginning to turn red. (This is also a fabulous pollinator plant; the bees adore it.)

Geranium wlassovianum

Some ornamental grasses undergo colour change in fall. One of the finest is ‘Shenandoah’ switch grass (Panicum virgatum), which colors a deep red-burgundy.

Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah'-Switch grass

And my final red star is bergenia (Bergenia cordifolia), whose evergreen leaves often turn a rich red or russset in fall…..


that lasts right through the snows of winter until spring, when they can do double-duty as partners to some of the tiny spring bulbs, like the glory-of-the-snow (Scilla forbesii) here at the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Bergenia cordifolia & Scilla forbesii