A November Wine Tasting

This is my month to explore that dark, rich, full-bodied, dowager great-aunt of ‘red’ – otherwise known as ‘wine’.  Or burgundy, if you like. Like its viticulture companion, a little wine in the garden goes a long way. Overdo it and you might not like the heavy feeling that results. But a little sip here and there adds depth and elegance to the garden. So let’s sample a few good vintages, shall we?


In my part of the world, spring wines are quite common, given that the Lenten roses or hellebores are flowering in profusion. This is Helleborus ‘Blue Lady’.


There are a few excellent wine-red tulips for later in spring, like the lovely lily-flowered tulip ‘Burgundy’, below.


And I loved this combination of the bicolour Triumph tulip ‘Gavota’ and dark ‘Queen of Night’ at the Toronto Botanical Garden.


I know I might have included the late-flowered tulip ‘Queen of Night’ in my blog on ‘black’ flowers, but it often shows with more red. This is that sensuous tulip spangled through an uncharacteristically wild bulb planting in the very formal Jardin des Tuileries in Paris. Notice how the repetition of the dark colour carries your eye up through the various beds, unifying them and lending them a somewhat ‘designed’ feeling in keeping with the place.


One of the more elegant little spring bulbs is snakeshead fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris). Apart from the checkered, wine-red species, there is a white form as well.


Of all the small trees for gardens, the biggest choice in red-leafed selections can be found in Japanese maples. This is the highly regarded Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Inaba-shidare’ at the Toronto Botanical Garden.


But the ubiquitous ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) also puts on a beautiful wine-red show throughout summer, and colours beautifully to bright scarlet in fall.  Here it is with the Triumph tulip ‘Boston’ in the Mary Fisher Spring Garden at the Toronto Botanical Garden.


One of the best shrubs for adding deep wine-red colour to an herbaceous border is purple smokebush. There are a few cultivars but the most common is Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’. The trick is to cut it back to the ground, i.e. ‘coppice’ it, in spring. Here is ‘Royal Purple just emerging with tulips.


Here is coppiced ‘Royal Purple’ a little later in the season with a lovely matching brushmark lily (possibly ‘Wizard’) in Bev Koppel’s wonderful garden at the Deep Cove Chalet Restaurant outside Victoria, B.C.


Here is coppiced Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ with tropical Tibouchina urvilleana at the Conservatory Garden in New York’s Central Park.


And in Toronto horticulturist Frank Kershaw’s  garden, there is an entire symphony of wine colour around Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’, including shutters, window awning and dwarf Japanese barberry.


Given all the hybridizing that’s occurred with heucheras over the past few decades, there are numerous selections with luscious leaves of burgundy and reddish-purple. At the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific outside Victoria, B.C., I adored this beautiful spring combination featuring Heuchera ‘Amethyst Mist’, Allium aflatunense ‘Purple Sensation’ and the dark-leafed ninebark Physocarpus ‘Diablo’ at rear.


Heuchera micrantha ‘Rachel’ is quite lovely.


And Heuchera ‘Pinot Noir’ has a name that fits our theme very nicely. It’s shown below frolicking with blue-flowered Gilia capitata.


One stunning peony is dark enough to be called ‘wine’, even if its actual name describes another favourite indulgence. Here is Paeonia ‘Chocolate Soldier’.


Though true-red irises have eluded hybridizers, there are many that come close to our November colour. Below is the heritage bearded iris ‘Col. Candelot’. Other deep-reds to check out are ‘Red at Night’, ‘Galactic Warrior’, ‘War Chief’, ‘Raptor Red’ and ‘Nebraska Big Red’, to name just a few.


And what about this gorgeous thing? Meet Iris spuria ‘Cinnabar Red’.


Though the mourning widow geranium (Geranum phaeum) is a little on the purplish side, I’ve included it here anyway. (And it’s a great bee flower!)


The breeders of the sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) below decided on a memorable name for their dark-flowered beauty. Meet ‘Heart Attack’, hanging out here with airy Allium schubertii at Wave Hill in the Bronx.


Early summer gives us masterworts (Astrantia major), and though many seem to be wishy-washy in their colouration, that’s not the case with ‘Hadspen Blood’, below, from Nori and Sandra Pope’s once glorious garden.


I simply adore Knautia macedonica with its dark-red button flowers that flower from spring well into autumn. It is the zingiest zing you can have in a border (or meadow), and all the bees love it, too.


Daylilies (Hemerocallis) aren’t really my thing anymore, other than the dear old orange tawny lily (H. fulva) that I have given up trying to annihilate in my garden. That being said, there are lots of wine-colored selections to choose from, including the lovelies below.

Clockwise from upper left: Strutter’s Ball, Round Midnight, Regal Finale, Tuscawilla Blackout, Black Ice, Jungle Beauty, Starman's Quest, Jennifer Napier

Clockwise from upper left: Strutter’s Ball, Round Midnight, Regal Finale, Tuscawilla Blackout, Black Ice, Jungle Beauty, Starman’s Quest, Jennifer Napier

Admittedly, Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera) isn’t very showy, but it’s a fine choice for well-drained soil and a naturalistic garden.


Martagon lilies (Lilium martagon) are the epitome of elegance and will take light shade. Below is the fabulous ‘Sarcee’, named for a First Nation tribe in hybridizer Fred Tarlton’s province of Alberta. I photographed it in his astonishing collection at the Devonian Gardens near Edmonton.


One of the magical, airy plants in Dutch designer Piet Oudolf’s palette is the dark form of Japanese burnet (Sanguisorba tenuifolia ‘Purpurea’) at the Toronto Botanical Garden.


For tough, low-maintenance perennials with wine-red leaves, you simply can’t beat sedums. Below is my array of some notable selections. The bees will thank you!


We don’t always stop to observe the subtle colour changes that happen as flowers age beyond their prime. I loved this dreamy crimson-wine duo of Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum ssp. maculatum) and fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Cassian’).


Japanese barberry (love it or hate it) occupies a special place in the world of wine foliage, and its response to trimming makes it especially appealing in formal gardens. Without a red barberry, how could you possibly achieve the beautiful creation below, in the Knot Garden at Filoli Garden near San Francisco?  Along with the Berberis thunbergii ‘Crimson Pygmy’, we have dwarf lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparis ‘Nana’),  germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) and dwarf myrtle (Myrtus communis ssp. tarentina ‘Compacta’).


Though not particularly showy, the pineapple-scented, deep-red flowers of Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus), below, are intriguing – and they fit my category!


What about trees with dark-red leaves? One that is deservedly popular – and much smaller than its parent, almost a tall shrub – is weeping copper beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea’), below.


And I cannot go on without mentioning ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud (Cercis canadensis) – especially when it looks like this from underneath the canopy!


Now for some warm-weather wines: tender bulbs, tropicals and annuals.

A few of the pineapple lilies (Eucomis) are an interesting combination of olive and burgundy, like E. comosa ‘Oakhurst’, below.  Look at that dark-red stem. (‘Sparkling Burgundy’ is another with similar colouration.)


Although they can look parkimental (park+regimental) grown in rows or Victorian-style bedding, many cannas have beautifully marked leaves and, in the right spot, add a luscious touch. Here is ‘African Sunset’ canna lily (Canna australis).


Speaking of the ‘right spot’, in Bev Koffel’s garden, a reddish canna and the deep-burgundy succulent Aeonium arborescens ‘Zwartkop’ add rich notes to an elegant urn.


Do you grow dahlias? If you like dark and dramatic, look no further than ‘Black Knight’.


Perhaps no species offers more possibilities in the wine spectrum than the foliage plant coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides, formerly Solenostemon, formerly Coleus blumei). I was enchanted by the way the gardeners at Toronto’s Spadina House worked ‘Wizard Mix’ coleus into their late summer plantings.


Want to see a few more? Here is ‘Kong Red’…


… and ‘Dipt-in-Wine’…..


… and ‘Big Red Judy’.

35-Plectranthus scutellarioides 'Big Red Judy'

Though it’s not hardy in my part of the world, Pennisetum setaceum ‘Fireworks’ is a fabulous, variegated, dark-red grass to add movement and colour to the summer garden.


I’m a frequent visitor to the Montreal Botanical Garden, and I loved seeing these burgundy-leaved tropicals against a yellow and gold three-panelled screen there a few years ago. From left rear are red spike (Amaranthus cruentus), rubber tree plant (Ficus elastica ‘Burgundy’), calico plant (Alternanthera dentata ‘Purple Knight’) and ‘Carmencita’ castor bean (Ricinus communis).


Here’s a look at the flowers of ‘Carmencita Bright Red’ castor bean (Ricinus communis). (Caveat emptor. Do be aware that this plant’s seeds contain one of the deadliest toxins known to man, ricin.  Just a few salt-sized grains of purified ricin can kill an adult.)


When we visited Nancy Goodwin’s Montrose Garden in Hillsborough, NC, a few years ago, spectacular and unexpected colour combinations were everywhere. I did enjoy this red-leaf hibiscus (Hibiscus acetosella) with orange dahlias.


In my own garden, I experiment each year with the contents of the six containers on the lower landing of my sundeck. One summer, below, I tried ‘Sweet Caroline Red’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) with  Anagallis ‘Wildcat Orange’. (The truth is it looked better in June than it did in August, since the anagallis petered out and the chartreuse-leaf pelargoniums were underwhelming, but the sweet potato vine thrived.)


Speaking of pelargoniums, ‘Vancouver Centennial’ is a real winner, with its bronze-red foliage.


One of the best spiky ‘centrepiece’ annuals is Cordyline australis ‘Red Star’, seen here in a pot at the Toronto Botanical Garden. Just look how its deep tones are picked up in those colour splotches on the luscious ‘Indian Dunes’ pelargonium.


And hello ‘grains-as-ornamentals’! This was redspike (Amaranthus cruentus) with slender vervain (Verbena rigida) and ‘Lemon Gem’ marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia) in a fabulous planting one year at Vancouver’s Van Dusen Botanical Garden.


Speaking of edibles, you can’t get find a more beautiful, wine-leafed edible than this beet:  Beta vulgaris ‘Bull’s Blood’ with nasturtiums and chartreuse ‘Margarita’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas).


And my last sip for our November wine tasting is a fine, full-bodied claret – yes, ‘Claret’ sunflower (Helianthus annuus).


Whew! ‘Wine-ding’ down now, that takes me through eleven months in my 2016 paintbox. Stay tuned for December and some lovely silver ‘belles’.

Complementary Contrast: Red and Green

While my earlier February post focused on some of my favourite red flowers for the garden, I want to spend just a little time talking about a principle of colour theory that, at least in the case of red, is a textbook example of visually pleasing complementary contrast.  You remember that from art theory, right? Colours that appear opposite each other on the artist’s colour wheel are said to be “complementary contrasts” and there is a harmony about them.  While not everyone might feel that way about orange & blue, the use of lots of restful green foliage to frame brilliant red blossoms seems like an obvious design approach.

Complementary Contrasts

Since a picture is worth a thousand words, let’s look at a few examples I’ve collected over the years.  How about these sweet red tulips popping up amidst fresh hosta foliage, at Toronto’s Casa Loma?  So much more lovely than emerging in bare spring soil.

Tulipa 'Pinocchio' & hosta leaves

And look how pretty this bright ‘Pacifica XP Really Red’ vinca (Catharanthus roseus) is when paired with the chartreuse-green groundcover creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Goldilocks’) at Missouri Botanical Garden.

Lysimachia 'Goldilocks' & Red Catharanthus

The deservedly popular perennial stonecrop Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ makes a fabulous carpet for this annual red portulaca at the Royal Botanical Garden in Hamilton, Ontario.

Sedum 'Angelina' & red portulaca

How about some tropicals?  I was wowed by this juxtaposition of dumpy little red salvia (S. splendens) and Canna ‘Pretoria’ at Stanley Park, Vancouver, B.C.

Salvia splendens & Canna 'Pretoria'

And I loved this combination of (very underused) Gomphrena globosa ‘Strawberry Fields’ with the taro Colocasia esculenta ‘Illustris’ at Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham, North Carolina.

Gomphrena 'Strawberry Fields' & Taro

This little ensemble of red coleus and honeybush (Melianthus major) with other tropical foliage plants took my eye at Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, PA many years ago.

Red coleus & Cerinthe major

Of course, you don’t have to think small when considering designing a garden using plants featuring red-and-green complementary contrast. Even a humble vegetable patch, like this one at Chateau Villandry, in France’s Loire Valley, illustrates my colour theory!

Chateau Villandry Potager

And the concept works with garden furnishings too, as you can see with the sweet little iron sculpture from Toronto’s Mark Clark, left, and the traditional torii gate leading into the Japanese Garden at Victoria’s Butchart Gardens, right.

Red Garden Art & Tori Gate

Be sure to come back in March, when I’ll explore that most important of garden hues: chlorophyll-green.

15 Floral Valentines for the Red-Inclined

I thought I’d celebrate Valentine’s Day

By loving some posies on my blog today

Not just any old flowers – oh no, no… instead

I’ve chosen some favourites in show-stopping RED

1. Let’s go with a tulip for (please hurry!) spring

Do you know ‘Rococo’?  What a gorgeous thing!

Tulipa 'Rococo'

One of those feathery parrots that draws lots of “Ahhh’s”

And she’s equally lovely when cut for a vase

Tulipa 'Rococo' in vase

2. In my cottage at the lake, it wouldn’t be May

Without this sweet little wildling that grows near the bay

I’m happy the seeds that I’ve sown have grown fine

Increasing my colony of wild columbine!

Aquilegia canadensis-Eastern columbine

3. For a long time I wasn’t sure what to think

About the native wildflower called Indian pink

Spigelia marilandica is its botanical name

And yes, I like it in woodland, where it puts ferns to shame.

Spigelia marilandica-Indian pink

4. Peonies in red are a populous lot

But not all have the oomph that my choice has got

She’s a buxom thing, bred for the cold Midwest

Meet ‘Buckeye Belle’ – simply one of the best

Paeonia 'Buckeye Belle'

5. Do you have a wee glade where the soil is quite wet?

This red-flowered lovely is a sure-fire damp bet

Behold Primula japonica ‘Miller’s Red’

A candelabra primrose for a bog or moist bed.

Primula japonica 'Miller's Crimson'

6. I love red corn poppies, Papaver rhoeas, by name

As somber Remembrance day symbols they earned their fame


But did you know that a man-of-the-cloth named Wilks

Became famous for breeding these flowers of silk

Papaver rhoeas-Shirley poppy1

Developing the “Shirley” strain in doubles of white, coral and pink

Though the prettiest still fall in the red tones, I think……

Papaver rhoeas-Shirley poppy2

7. Summer daisies are myriad but none blooms as long

As blanket flowers (Gaillardias) – provided you’re a strong

Deadheader! And if so you’ll love ‘Burgundy’ – and she’s

Superb at providing pollen for foraging bees!

Gaillardia x grandiflora'Burgundy'-Blanket Flower

8. What about a red annual for a tropical pot?

Here’s one that couldn’t be more sizzling-hot:

It’s Mandevilla ‘Pretty Crimson’ – or “rocktrumpet” in Brazil

And its dark-red trumpet flowers are designed to thrill!

Mandevilla 'Pretty Crimson'

9. I’ve got a favourite rudbeckia with a colour that’s dandy

Not yellow or gold, but rich-red  ‘Cherry Brandy’

Rudbeckia hirta 'Cherry Brandy'

Montreal Botanical Garden uses it in a fabulous scene

‘Cherry Brandy’ and Tuscan kale, with its leaves of blue-green.

Rudbeckia hirta 'Cherry Brandy'-Montreal Botanical Garden

10. If your thoughts turn to kisses on Valentine’s night

You’ll like Salvia ‘Hot Lips’ in bright red-and-white

Think it’s a bit overrated? Well, don’t take my word…

It got top marks from my resident hummingbird.

Salvia 'Hot Lips' & Hummingbird

11. My favourite-of-all summer bulbs is bright-red

This is Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ in my cottage meadow bed

Crocosmia crocosmiiflora 'Lucifer'

12. Here’s a dye plant from the prairie, where it seldom rains

Meet Coreopsis tinctoria ‘Dwarf Red’ of the plains

Coreopsis tinctoria 'Dwarf Red'-Plains coreopsis

13. Back to perennials – here’s one for a damp August bower

Lobelia cardinalis – our native red cardinal flower

Lobelia cardinalis-Cardinal flower-Montreal Botanical Garden

And while we’re at it, let’s raise our glass to that colourful word

Shared by Roman prelates and this fine northern bird

Cardinal in pond-Cardinalis cardinalis

14. Another late summer perennial if your soil is mucky

Is swamp mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) from southern climes like Kentucky

And my favourite of all is red ‘Cranberry Crush’

You won’t find another flower this big or this lush….

Hibiscus moscheutos 'Cranberry Crush'-Swamp Hibiscus

15. When considering roses of red on this day

There’s a much-hackneyed phrase that I’ll borrow to say

If you want a red rose, just “go big or go home”

And choose ‘Dortmund’. Okay, that’s the end of my poem.

Rosa 'Dortmund'


Not a Blog!

This is not a blog. I repeat: this is not a blog.  It is merely a taste of blogs to come this year. And they will be about COLOUR!  Or color (if you prefer it without extraneous British/Canadian vowels).

Flower Colour Array-ThePaintboxGarden

Yes, I thought it might be time for The Paintbox Garden to adhere to its stated theme. So each month of 2016 will be devoted to a different hue, beginning with JANUARY, which will be white as the driven (or walking) snow. White as in wonderland, appropriate to the season. White as an even paler shade of pale. And of course, white as in perfume – coming up soon.

White Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

FEBRUARY will be red, as in better — than dead, paint the town —, roses are —,  and UB-40s favourite beverage.  And the longest, boldest wave length in Isaac Newton’s spectral light arsenal. Plus, of course, swamp hibiscus.

Red Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

MARCH will be green (yes, I know, hackneyed Irish trope for St. Paddy’s). But it is the only really important colour in the garden paintbox, as all chlorophyll-lovers know.  Nevertheless, as Kermit is fond of saying, it ain’t easy being green.  My March blogs will help dispel that notion.

Green Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

But being Kermit-green is definitely easier than being chartreuse, which is half-green and half-yellow. I will squeeze some limes… and chartreuses…into my March blogs as well.

Chatreuse Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

Because it’s the cruellest month, as T.S. Eliot reminded us, APRIL will be blue. Actually, I chose blue for April because of all those lovely little azure bulbs that spring up from the snow. But there will be azure blues….

Blue Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

….and lighter sky-blues for the entire gardening season, too.

Sky-Blue Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

MAY will be pink, as in the darling buds. Think crabapples, weigelas, columbines, peonies, and phloxes and hydrangeas for later in the season. There will be lusty pinks…

Pink Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

…and delicate, light pinks.

Light Pink Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

I’ll skip magenta because I wrote a love letter to that neon hue in 2014.

JUNE will be purple. Riots often break out about what purple means (for the record it comes from the Greek word porphura, for little murex sea snails that bleed that dark crimson ‘purple’ dye). So let me say June will be about lilac-purple..

Lilac-Purple Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

.. through lavender-purple…

Lavender-Purple Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

… into violet-purple…

Violet-Purple Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

… and finally rich, royal, Seagram’s Bag, Tyrian purple.

Purple Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

JULY will be all sunshine: lots of yellow…

Yellow Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

… and gold.

Gold Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

AUGUST will be black(ish). And hopefully some good thunderstorms!

Black flowers & leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

SEPTEMBER will be every lovely shade of brown, as in grasses and seedheads.

Brown Flowers & Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

OCTOBER will be jack-o-lanternly, clockworkly-orange.

Orange Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

And I’ll throw in peach (even though it likes to party with pink, too)…

Peach Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

…and apricot (even though it sometimes hangs out with the gold crowd)…

Apricot Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

… and salmon for a well-rounded fruit & fish diet.

Salmon-Orange Flowers-ThePaintboxGarden

NOVEMBER will be wine or burgundy, because who doesn’t fancy a little vino in dreary November.

Wine Flowers & Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

DECEMBER will be silver, as in bells, hi-ho, and Long John.

Silver Leaves-ThePaintboxGarden

And that’s a promise!

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