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Deciduous shrubs more than "bunch of sticks"

Posted Tuesday, November 15, 2005 - 10:13 am

By Durant Ashmore

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It's time to consider transplanting plants, trees (11/22/05)
Deciduous shrubs more than "bunch of sticks" (11/15/05)
Autumn leaves are nature's gift for mulching (11/08/05)
Plant colorful winter annuals without delay (11/01/05)
Changing landscape rides in with cold winds (10/25/05)

I'm sure everyone is enjoying this wonderful fall season we are having. The cooler temperatures and crisp, clean air makes it a joy to be outside. The wonderful display that nature is providing for our benefit makes it all the more pleasant for our outside endeavors.

One of these benefits is provided by the fall color of our deciduous shrubs. These plants are providing us with a blaze of glory before they fade away into their winter dormancy. Deciduous shrubs do not get their due respect. Many times people do not consider using plants that are "just a bunch of sticks" in the winter.

The key to using deciduous plants in the landscape is to use them in front of an evergreen planting. Most of these plants flower, and they look great against an evergreen background. In the fall, the contrast between their fall color and an evergreen planting can create a dramatic effect. In the winter the eye of the beholder is focused on the evergreens in the background and does not dwell on the barren deciduous plants in front.

This is the same principle that many rose garden designers use. Roses provide no interest at all in the winter. When an evergreen background is provided the contrast with the flowers can be quite effective. In the winter the evergreen background provides substance to the garden. The bonus here is that the roses don't look like "just a bunch of sticks" which happen to be very thorny as well.

Perhaps the preeminent fall shrub is the burning bush (euonymous alatus). Please refer to the columns on Oct. 8, 2003, and Nov. 26, 2003, to read about more details on this plant. Suffice it to say, burning bush is absolutely spectacular to use to provide fall interest.

Other deciduous shrubs that look great in the fall are the viburnams with their striking red foliage. Oak leaf hydrangea is a real winner when it comes to fall color. Fothergilla, Virginia sweetspire (Itea) and spirea are other deciduous shrubs which provide a wonderful display this time of year.

Many native plants provide fall interest with the fruits and seeds that they produce. Beautyberry is in the forefront here. This plant produces big whorls of bright purple berries all along the stem of the plant. During the summer beautyberry is rather nondescript. Look for it now as you drive through the country. My family gets great delight from spotting beautyberry as we go about our daily trips back and forth to town.

There is another euonymous which provides great fall interest. This is the native Euonymous americannus. The bright orange seed pods of this plant really are interesting. This plant is very common in our area, and if you didn't cut it down while cleaning out or cutting out underbrush in a wooded area, you probably are enjoying it now. Combined with the attractive fall foliage of wild blueberry (another great plant which gets cut down by people who don't know what it is) you are enjoying a natural display of nature's beauty free of charge.

The seed heads on native sumac are also out there for all of us to enjoy. These large red seed heads combined with the attractive red fall foliage provide a great deal of interest. Sumac can be invasive. This is a plant I try to keep from spreading but don't eradicate entirely in order to enjoy its fall show.

No discussion of interesting plants for the fall can exclude the beautiful colors which our native trees provide. We all know what a show the maples will soon provide. The much maligned sweet gum will soon be showing red, yellow and purple, sometimes all these colors on the same tree. Beech and river birch will provide gorgeous yellows. Dogwood is starting to show its beautiful red color now, and the reds and yellows of oaks will be beginning to show very soon.

There are three native trees which I would like the readers to pay particular attention to this fall. These trees are sourwood, black gum and sassafrass, and you will get a great deal of enjoyment from observing them.

Sourwood is one of the first trees to turn in the fall. It has an irregular, twisting habit of growth with deeply furrowed bark. If you look now you will notice its bright red leaves.

Black gum also turns red in the fall. It has a deeply furrowed bark as well. The leaves on black gum are rounded or ovate in shape. When it is in full color it is so bright that the leaves seem to glow. Black gum is not related to sweet gum in any way.

Sassafrass is remarkable in the fall. This small tree has mitten-like leaves. The fall color is a brilliant yellow to orange which makes the tree appear as if it were on fire. This is a tree which is terribly underused in the contemporary landscape.

Editor's note: Columnist Durant Ashmore, MLA, of Fountain Inn, is certified by the South Carolina Nursery Association. He can be reached at 243-3446 or

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