Arboretum Paths: Native plants with great fall color

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A fall-toned blackgum leaf rests in a juvenile longleaf pine. (Photo by Pat Drackett)

A fall-toned blackgum leaf rests in a juvenile longleaf pine. (Photo by Pat Drackett)

Now that we are firmly planted in the season of fall, we await the approach of peak leaf color here on the coast. Have you spotted flashes of scarlet sumac leaves along local roadsides, or the burgundy hues of black gum trees?

Some trees, such as sweetgum and maple, have been carpeting the ground with their rusty brown leaves. The extensive period of dry weather that stuck with us until recently may have affected some of the trees that would normally be blazing a little brighter.

The grounds of the Mississippi State University campus in Starkville abound with autumn color. One of the most beautiful sights is the yellow fan-shaped leaves decorating the ginkgo trees there. The dark, fissured trunks of this tree provide a stark contrast to its delicate leaves. It is most definitely a showstopper.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

While in Coastal Mississippi we may not experience as brilliant a display of fall leaf color, there are a number of plants we can use in our landscape that will add to the autumn show.
Which trees say “fall” to you? You can’t go wrong by planting a red maple tree. In addition to its red fall color, this attractive medium-sized deciduous tree, is one of the easiest to grow. It tolerates both very wet and very dry soils, and will prosper in full sun as well as the shady areas under the canopy of larger trees. In early spring, its beautiful red flowers and fruits give this tree an extended period of color.
Sweetgum is a large deciduous tree with attractive star-shaped leaves. It also has the ability to grow on both moist and dry sites. Sweetgum is known for its brilliant purple-red fall color, as well as spiny ball-shaped fruits that can provide a surprise to those who stroll barefoot in the lawn.
Properly sited, sweetgum can make a handsome shade tree, and is tolerant of urban situations. Care should be taken to not locate this tree too close to structures, as it has a tendency to drop limbs. Some may know sweetgum as the “toothbrush tree” because of its use by pioneers who cut and chewed its twigs until they became soft enough for this purpose.
In fall, black gum puts on a coat of many colors here at the Arboretum. This tree is typically found in swampy areas, but can also occur on upland sites. It will average 40 to 60 feet in height. Black gum grows in full sun or part shade, and can be used in the home landscape as a shade or specimen tree. When in bloom, the flowers are attractive to bees, and are a source of “tupelo honey”.
Fringetree, pawpaw, and southern sugar maple are all small native trees that will light up the forest with the glowing yellow fall foliage. Both Fringetree (a.k.a. Grancy graybeard) and pawpaw prefer moist, well-drained woodlands but are adaptable to a variety of soils and light exposures, and are excellent choices for specimen trees in shady sites.
Soon, the rusty orange tones of bald cypress will line the Arboretum’s Piney Woods Pond. This tree occurs naturally in wet habitats throughout the Coastal Plan, and prefers acidic soils and full sun. Although it tolerates wet sites, it will do well in upland environments, and is actually drought-tolerant.
A native shrubs that can contribute its jewel-tones to the autumn tapestry of the home garden is Virginia sweetspire, found growing in the Arboretum’s Aquatic Exhibit. Near the Cypress Cove deck, the shrub does well in partial shade. It will become established on the slight rises of tree buttresses, which provide the plant with good drainage.
Elliot’s blueberry lights up the forest edges when its lacy foliage turns scarlet in autumn. The shrub is found along Arboretum pathways. It will do fine in both poorly drained and well drained acidic soils, and a variety of sun exposures. Fruiting is best in full sun, and the tasty berries make it a great choice for the wildlife garden, and for blueberry muffins.
Attend the Winter Birding program on Saturday, November 14 from 10 to 11 a.m. Avid birder and author Susan Epps will discuss where to look, what to expect, and how to identify winter birds. Non-members, $5. Call 601-799-2311 to sign up.

The Arboretum is open Wednesdays through Sundays 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).

By Patricia Drackett