As the shades of green start to fade on the trees, bursting forth are the myriad autumn colours: reds, purples, oranges, yellows, pinks and don’t forget the browns, which can also be just as spectacular.
But what exactly is autumn colour and where do all these fantastic hues come from? Well, actually, the colours you see are already present in small amounts in the leaves throughout the year; they are just suppressed by the presence of the green pigment – chlorophyll – while the plant is photosynthesising. Once the days shorten, the temperatures drop and the tree starts to shut down, the chlorophyll disappears and leaves behind these amazing pigments. The colours are then enhanced by dry, sunny days and low (but not freezing) temperatures.
At RHS Garden Hyde Hall, the real focal point for me in autumn is Clover Hill and the surrounding area towards the lake, which enjoys a perfect open, sunny position in the garden. One tree in particular draws all of the questions from visitors at this time of year, Fraxinus angustifolia ‘Raywood’ (The Claret Ash). Originating from Raywood gardens in Adelaide, Australia, this large vigorous tree grows up to 20m (so will not be suitable for small gardens!) and our specimen is currently 15m-plus at the moment. It has a lovely rounded branch structure, which you can see more clearly from the picture I took in winter 2015 (above) but it is the shades of claret and purple that make this a real showstopper.
Other key plants to look out for around Clover Hill and the lake at this time of year are Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’, which has deeper lobed leaves and even better autumn colour than the straight species (sometimes even seeing yellow, orange and red on the tree at once!), and Quercus ellipsoidalis, which turns a brilliant red and actually holds on to most of its cinnamon-coloured leaves through winter. Cotinus ‘Flame’, for me, is one of the very best Cotinus for autumn colour, with a real blaze of orange and red. And one more tree that really stands out on Clover Hill is again, another Ash but this time a cultivar of our native Ash, Fraxinus excelsior ‘Aurea’ (The Golden Ash) (right). Just look how this one glows in the autumn sunshine!
Shrubs for smaller gardens
These are all quite sizeable trees but if you want to add some colour into a smaller garden at this time of year, here’s my selection of smaller shrubs that give you not just great autumn colour but something extra to extend the season of interest:
Poor autumn colour
Lots of advice about varying autumn colours
Hyde Hall in autumn
See more pictures of Hyde Hall in autumn – and at other times of the year