The Spirit of Our Autumn Hues

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The Spirit of Our Autumn Hues

Categories: Blog, Garden Guru, Newsworthy

Homeowners choose trees for their landscape based on what ornamental attribute?  Hands down it is their fall color!  Our autumn weather is usually more settled and comfortable than springtime and people enjoy the getting outside and marveling at the fall hues of trees which are the most riotous colors in our landscape for sure.

Our Parking Lot is an arboretum of trees native to Kansas and Missouri.  Here Pin Oaks (Quercus palustris) in burnt reds, change to an orange frosted golden Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) followed by golden-olive and golden Willow Oaks (Quercus phellos).

People are drawn to the fiery reds first.  There are several trees that can show this to a tee:  most notably Red Maples, Sugar Maples, Sweetgum, Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea — shown above), Smoketree, Flowering Dogwood and Japanese Maples.  The Red Maple is surely the most popular tree in Kansas City for this reason.  I personally like Sugar Maples better because its leaves are more translucent so their fall color takes a more brilliant or luminous appearance that is hard to capture in photographs or in words.

Sweetgum also can show the luminous leaf trait (the left tree in the image above!) but is probably the most variable, in other words, different individual trees can have a wide range of fall foliage color.  This past weekend I saw some that were almost pure purple, some scarlet, orange, pure yellow and quite a few (many?) still green! A few trees displayed this entire kaleidoscope of colors.  But Sweetgums have a bad reputation, mainly because we plant them in the wrong place and their utterly spectacular fruit do drop and present a problem to the way we use our landscapes.  Did I just say spectacular fruit?  Take a closer look at them if you hate them.  The tree in red attire above on the right is a ‘Autumn Blaze’ Maple which is a hybrid between Red and Silver Maples (Acer x freemanii).  The above image was taken Saturday morning at Forest Hills Cemetery in Kansas City.

I often get comments that we have not planted enough trees for fall color at Powell Gardens.  Our mission includes: “Powell Gardens is an experience that embraces the Midwest’s Spirit of Place…” Our spirit of place is where the oak-hickory forest meets the prairie and what a simply spectacular interface of beautiful plants that is!   It was thrilling to have renowned Great Plains photographer Michael Forsberg here to remind us of this inherent beauty and congratulate us on a garden that captures and displays that aspect of our place.    The scene above reflects our fall colors taken while they were at peak last Friday, November 1, 2013.

The fall colors of our Oak-Hickory Forest are incredible shades from yellow to golden-olive, various shades of brown from tan to almost orange, rich russet reds but rarely vibrant reds.  The native grasses sport hues from golden blond to russet orange in a color palette that compliments the woodland’s trees.  That is the overlying warp and weft of colors we weave other plants through to make sure our spirit of place shines through while also displaying the magnificent variety of plants we are able to grow here.  The image above is from our along our entrance drive with native grasses ( mainly Purpletop Tridens flavus) and native trees (various oaks and hickories).

Sugar Maples don’t like our site and its soils except in specific microclimates: the picture above is also from Forest Hills Cemetery which has possibly the most extensive local display of Sugar Maples.  Planting them in abundance at Powell Gardens would be just as foolish as planting palm trees here.  Most homeowners understand a palm tree is not hardy here but they don’t understand other cultural aspects like soil requirements of plants.  Sugar Maples ARE native to the area but on moist, sheltered slopes in well-drained soils.  Powell Gardens soils are clays that are poorly drained and actually wet in spring but can dry out to powder in a drought.  The dominant NATIVE tree at Powell Gardens is Swamp White Oak which reflects our soil.

Swamp White Oaks (Quercus bicolor) turn a tan to olive-gold-brown at their best but they are handsome trees and currently the darling tree of urban foresters.  The picture above is from the Perennial Garden where two mature wild trees have a young tree between them that we planted in 1991 when the Perennial Garden opened — that planted tree is almost 40 feet tall in 22 years.

Here are some images of Powell Gardens’ trees in their finest fall attire.  May it inspire you and the incredible beauty of our autumn hues and help you pick trees appropriate for you own landscape.

 Scarlet Oak is the most fiery of our trees. The above tree is in the parking area for the Chapel (its foliage was shown in the second image of this blog).  This tree is difficult to transplant and needs acidic soil (which we have).  It is a spectacular tree but a challenge and is highly susceptible to oak wilt so we don’t recommend widespread planting in our region.

White Oak is one of our finest native oaks for fall color too but varies on individual trees from almost maroon-red to russet red.  This tree is in the our parking lot arboretum and shows magnificent hues.  White Oak is also a challenge to transplant and does best in soils that have not been altered by construction.  If planted in the right spot it does amazingly well and grows quite fast!  I have to plug Skinner’s Nursery in Topeka because on my recent visit they had many white oaks for sale, in fact almost every native oak they had in stock!

Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) are a Missouri native conifer that are NOT evergreen and turn magnificent rust hues now and through November.  They thrive in our poorly drained soils, are easy to transplant and grow very fast.  They are also very long-lived and very strong wooded.  You can see the left tree is abundantly decorated by round gray cones which eventually turn brown and hang on the tree into winter.  The above picture is at the south entrance into the Rock & Waterfall Garden.

Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) from local wild strains usually turns this bronzy gold to orange. Yes, this tree in the parking lot arboretum was dug from the wild here on our property.   Trees do vary in color on the grounds from dark red to gold in the fall.


These are Cut-leaf Silver Maples (Acer saccharinum ‘Skinneri’) in the parking lot arboretum.  Yes, this is a unique selection of native Silver Maple that gets lots of positive comments from visitors!  Its finely divided leaves are beautiful all the time and turn a rich yellow in the fall.  It’s a native selection made by Skinner’s Wholesale Nursery of Topeka, Kansas.  Silver Maples have a bad reputation for growing fast and becoming huge, weak trees but this selection is much more refined and sturdy.

Japanese Maples (Acer palmatum) can have some of the finest late fall colors and this may be the best cultivar for our area: ‘Emperor II’ currently screaming red in the Rock & Waterfall Garden.  This cultivar leafs out a bit later in spring making it less susceptible to a late hard freeze in spring.

Serviceberries also have phenomenal fall color and as a small understory tree they add color to the “woodland” section of the Perennial Garden.  This is a natural hybrid Apple Serviceberry Amelanchier x grandiflora which is native east of Missouri.  Our locally wild species is the Downy Serviceberry Amelanchier arborea which we have planted on the west edge of the Rock & Waterfall Garden.

Late afternoon in one bay of our parking lot arboretum– the native trees are finally becoming big enough to really shine.  We started with small tree but it was worth the wait.