Outstanding native plants adorn your landscape with fall color

Published 3:41 pm Wednesday, November 9, 2011

If your travels have taken you northward over the past week, you have certainly been enjoying the roadsides that are beginning to literally glow with fall color. My drive back down to Picayune last week after a visit to Mississippi State University was an entirely different experience than the trip up to campus three days earlier, thanks to the recent dip in temperatures.

A road trip taken during this time of year is a delightful experience due to the kaleidoscope of autumn hues and the crisp, invigorating weather. Several visitors to the Arboretum have commented about how much fun they have had lately, drinking in the fall color during day trips on the Natchez Trace Parkway.

But you don’t have to go far to experience fall scenery. The roadsides along I-59 between Picayune and Hattiesburg are sparkling with color. Sweetgum trees make up a lot of these shades, with leaves ranging from yellow to red to deep purple. In our neighboring coastal counties, however, many sweetgum are still wearing green and only contemplating yellow, although it is only a matter of time before they catch up with the rest of the state.

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You may also know the sweetgum tree as the “toothbrush tree” because early settlers used twigs of the tree to clean their teeth, or perhaps as the “alligator tree” due to its deeply furrowed bark. The publication “Mississippi Trees”, produced by the Mississippi Forestry Commission, Mississippi Extension Service, and the MSU College of Forest Resources is a great source of tree lore. The book states that Native American tribes used sweetgum for multiple purposes. Dried sap was used as a chewing gum, and also to treat distemper by placing rolled up pieces in a dog’s nose (don’t try this at home). “Drawing plasters” were made from the sap to reduce fever, and the roots, bark, and leaves were used to make tea. Currently, the sap is used as an ingredient in both medicine and perfume. Sweetgum is one of the most valuable commercial hardwoods in the Southeast, in terms of the volume produce, and is used for pulp, veneer, and lumber.

The leaves of local black gum trees began to turn orange and red more than a month ago, as it is one of the earliest trees to dress up in fall color. The flowers of this tree are considered very good for honey. Black gum is found in the moist, rich soils found near swamps, and also in mixed upland hardwood forests.

One of the most brilliant scarlet hues belongs to the winged sumac trees that are seen dotting area roadsides. Sumac is also found scattered throughout the exhibits at Crosby Arboretum, especially in the dryer areas within our Savanna Exhibit. This is an excellent small tree to add to your wildlife garden, as more than 300 species of songbirds are known to feast on sumac fruit. According to the publication “Mississippi Trees”, sumac is a good species to plant on drastically disturbed sites where pioneer plant species are common. Sumac occurs in dry fields and thickets, and on sandy slopes and ridges.

Our native blueberries, also known as “huckleberries”, are also known for their bright red color in the landscape. Elliot’s blueberry has a delicate, lacy form, and will grow to around ten feet. Although it is well on its way to attaining a bright red along our pathways, this shrub will also catch your eye in late winter, when its small, bell-shaped flowers are visited by bees on warm days in January or February. Lastly, it will reward you with tiny, sweet berries in spring, making it a great choice for your wildlife garden or for patient persons who will pick a handful of berries and bake up a batch of blueberry muffins or Sunday morning pancakes.

Itea, also called Virginia willow, or sweetspire, is a shrub with an arching form that grows in well-drained wet areas such as the “hummocks” and bases of trees found in the Arboretum’s Aquatic Exhibit. It will also grow in drier garden soils. In spring, the shrub is covered with brilliant white flower spikes, having a sweet fragrance. In fall, this shrub turns a gorgeous burgundy hue. Two varieties that are fairly easy to locate in the nursery trade are ‘Henry’s Garnet’, and ‘Little Henry’.

Because of its rapid growth and tolerance of a wide range of soil conditions, red maple is also a popular landscape tree. In addition to its attractive red fall color, it seems to have something red most of the year. In early spring, red maple flowers put on a brilliant red show, followed by red fruit, called samaras. Even upon close inspection during times of the year when it appears to only have green leaves, one can see that the petioles (stems) of red maple leaves are red. One interesting fact from “Mississippi Trees” is that the tree is toxic to cattle and horses that browse on it, especially during the late summer and fall. Native Americans reportedly used red maple bark to treat hives and muscular aches, and to make a wash for inflamed eyes and cataracts. Iron sulfate was added to the tannin from the bark to make ink, and it is also possible to make maple syrup from red maple sap.

So, take a hint from these descriptions of the autumn attributes of the above trees and shrubs. Plan to incorporate some of these plants into your garden this fall or winter so that they will have time to become well established, and provide you with a “wow” in your landscape this time next year.

Come take a walk at the Crosby Arboretum soon, and enjoy the cooler weather. For more information, please see our website at www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu, or contact the Arboretum office at 601-799-2311. We are open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59).

For further exploration:

What makes leaves appear green?

Why do they change color in fall?

Thanks to the Internet, the answers are at your fingertips. Learn why, and then explain this fact to someone.