Visits with interesting plants

Autumn colour. Looking back at visits to Anglesey Abbey, Audley End, Kew Gardens, RHS Wisley, Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens and Green Island Gardens

When even bracken glows, you know it’s a good year for leaf colour

The shortening days of autumn can be unwelcome and even in a normal year, without the extra challenges that this one has brought, many people feel their mood profoundly affected by the diminishing light as though it’s tracking the sun sinking ever lower in the sky.

But autumn doesn’t have to be gloomy. I’m not suggesting it can help everyone in every situation, but the great outdoors can be a surprisingly enticing place at this time of year and when it stops raining and the sun shines (or even if it doesn’t), getting outside and noticing the changes can bring positive benefits to our minds and emotions. It is, after all, just another season, a vital break in the growth cycle for many plants and a chance to shine for others. The short days of autumn and winter will pass as quickly as the longer ones of spring and summer do, and if you need a mood lift you could try to head out and see what’s happening.

The mix of weather we’ve had this year has led to some fantastic autumn colour and, with a bit less going on than usual, I’ve been determined to support as many gardens as possible and make the most of it. This is a roundup of what I’ve seen on various garden visits made between early October and the end of November.

Pumpkins and squash seemed to kick the season off. By the time these were being harvested and left in the sun to ripen in October, dusk was already noticeably early and the clocks were soon to go back. The greenhouse and pumpkin theatre in the pictures below were at Audley End, the huge display of squash, pumpkins and gourds of all shapes, sizes and colours was at Kew Gardens.

In early autumn with frosts some way off there were still plenty of flowers out in most of the country. Dahlias were at their best and with their popularity still on the rise, quite a lot of gardens now have big displays. The dahlias pictured below were at Angelsey Abbey and Audley End, while the verbena bonariensis teamed with bleached out tassels of Miscanthus nepalensis were at Kew Gardens. At this time of year berries are ripe and haven’t yet been eaten by birds – the metallic purple berries of Callicarpa were at RHS Wisley – and as the nights get colder there can be a lot of colour in the foliage of perennials, such as these low-growing Persicaria affinis in the current AGM trial at RHS Wisley.

The last of the roses can provide temporary shelter for insects like this ladybird, looking for somewhere to hibernate.

Even as flowers fade, gardens don’t need to tidied up too much. Seed heads and dried grasses like these in the walled garden at Audley End are worth keeping so borders look full and attractive right through the winter. Birds will enjoy the seeds, too, and the stems can make good nesting sites for overwintering insects.

Meanwhile, some flowers are just getting underway. Autumn-flowering cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium) can start blooming in late summer, before their marbelled leaves appear, and keep going well into autumn. I haven’t come across another display quite as impressive as the carpets of cyclamen at Anglesey Abbey, seen here sheltering under gently colouring trees that filter the low sunlight into a golden glow. You have to marvel at the resilience of nature when you see how well plants can adapt to a difficult time of year and a part of the garden where few other things would flourish, and come up with a show like this.

All of this glory on the ground is set off by the trees, of course, especially in a year like 2020 that has provided a good mix of sun, rain and a few cold nights to get things underway, gently at first with hints of colour

The picture with the grasses was taken at Kew Gardens, the others were at Audely End and Anglesey Abbey – including the stunning avenue of fastigiate hornbeam.

Then as nights get colder the changes pick up pace ….

….. as the leaves lose more of their green pigment, and the other pigments that have developed during the summer have a chance to show through. Rich, warm, golden browns, yellows and reds that highlight the emerald green of the grass. (The first two pictures are views at Audley End, the third is at Anglesey Abbey).

Some trees are subtle throughout, while others are far more flamboyant. It’s easy to spot Sweet Gum, Liquidamber styraciflua, not only because it has vibrant colour but because it varies so much throughout each tree. The leaves are similar in shape to maples (acers) but that mix of colours makes it easy to tell them apart in the autumn. And of course many of the maples themselves are amazingly vivid, creating some of the most exuberant displays. Angelesey Abbey has a good supply of these, especially in the winter garden where I took most of these pictures.

As I mentioned earlier, sunshine definitely helps everything to look its best and in early November, despite a fluctuating forecast, I managed to visit RHS Wisley on a very good day. They have lots of fantastic maples, as well as swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum) around the lake and an unusual Tulip tree (seen here with its yellow leaves being shown off to perfection by a clear blue sky).

Then, with sun still shining, I visited the leafy woodland of Green Island Gardens in Essex. This garden is home to national collections of hamamelis (witch hazel) and autumn and winter flowering camellias which were the (work-related) purpose of my visit, and also to a good number of maples that I found impossible to walk past without taking a few quick snaps.

Sadly, though inevitably, neither the weather nor the autumn glory can last forever. Storms sweep in, temperatures drop further and frosts begin, after which it rains leaves. By the time I visited Leonardslee Lakes and Gardens some trees were completely bare while the foliage that remained was mostly mellow, and looked especially subdued under stubbornly cloudy skies. Only the yellow leaves of the deciduous larch, a few maples in sheltered parts of the rock garden and some beautiful dogwoods (Cornus kousa and Cornus ‘Norman Haddon’) hung on to some real radiance, though there were still many beautiful views.

Now December is on the horizon and winter is coming, a time to focus on Christmas and as many of our family as we are allowed to meet. But this also means that the shortest day is only a few weeks away and the tide will start to turn again. It can be more of a challenge to get outside if the weather is really cold in winter, but hopefully I will be able to carry on visiting gardens and I’ll still be able to find some interesting plants

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