Fiery hues for autumn cheer

By Gareth Winter

As if the summer season was not hot enough for gardeners and those in the nursery trade, my friends, Laurie and Carol, at the Garden Barn in High Street decided to make things even hotter last weekend - with an unplanned bonfire in their potting shed. Fortunately, no one was hurt (although Laurie was out of earshot when it started and caused some concern) and, although there was a fair bit of damage, they will bounce back. This couple know only one way to cope with something like the fire: they will knuckle down and repair the damage.

Being of a naturally cheeky disposition, I have decided to give them some choices for their autumn sale - some suggestions of varieties they may want to run specials on.

First up, of course, are the Cotinus, or as most of us call them, "smoke bushes". There are a couple of different groups of these, the American and European forms. The European species, C. coggygria, probably deserves the common name more because it has plumes of misty purplish flowers in early summer which fade to become even smokier. Their foliage colours up in the autumn, but the display is nowhere near as good as that of their American cousins. One form, though, called Royal Purple, has amazing foliage right through the growing season and deep-wine purple coloured leaves with a shiny surface. It has gigantic flower heads of light mauve over summer and, for autumn, it colours up almost as well as the American forms.

The American C. obovatus is taller-growing than its European relative and does not have the same number of flowers nor the same degree of smokiness. Perhaps you could call it the politically correct smoke bush - the smokefree smoke bush. However, what it lacks in flower power it more than makes up for with foliage display, especially in the autumn when the leaves take on hues of orange, scarlet and purple, giving a startling display. I think this may be the best autumn foliage display of any medium-sized shrub.

These are relatively easily-grown plants, preferring a sunny situation and cool, free-draining soil. They do not like the soil to be over-rich and they certainly do not need fertiliser applied often - when they are grown in rich soil they grow rather coarsely and do not colour up so well. However, they do respond very well to trimming and shaping, the neater bushes giving better foliage displays.

I do not even know if my friends stock this next plant, a striking evergreen tree from across the ditch, but perhaps they will soon. I am referring to the glorious firewheel tree, Stenocarpus sinuatus. This flamboyant tree, native to the coastal forests of Queensland, is frost tender, but I have seen it growing very well in Napier, so I am sure you could get away with it in warm areas of Wairarapa, especially near the coast.

It has unusual foliage - the leaves are glossy green and wavy - and has spectacularly showy bright orange-red flowers at this time. The flowers radiate out from a central point, giving the impression of a spoked wheel, and they last into the autumn. This is a great specimen tree (it grows about 10m high) if you have a frost-free site.

Another Aussie import could be on their sale list too - the Illawarra flame tree, Brachychiton acerifolius. This is a stunning tree with an unusual habit: it drops all its leaves just before it comes into flower in early spring. The leaves are bright green and deeply lobed, like a maple as the Latin name suggests, and are very attractive in their own right, but it is the remarkable flowering this tree is grown for. In late spring through summer, it produces masses of vivid red, bell-shaped flowers that cover the bare branches, making the tree look as though it is on fire.

Although this species comes from warmer climes than ours, it is quite adaptable and would grow in warm areas here - you would need to keep the frost off it for the first few years though. This very attractive tree would be worth the effort.

On a smaller scale, and of a different kind of fire altogether, you could go for one of the firethorns, Pyracantha varieties. These medium-sized shrubs have bunches of small, off-white flowers in spring - nothing much to write home about - but they come into their own in the autumn when they bear huge crops of little berries. There are several different clones, each with different colours, and although Shawnee and Orange Glow are nice enough, it is Brilliant, with its bright, shiny red fruit that gets my vote. Incredibly, the fruit seems to be unpalatable to birds, so it even manages to hang around through winter.

A word of warning though. The "pyr" part of the Latin name refers to fire, and the berries give that, but the "acantha" refers to thorns, and they carry these in abundance as well. Plant these shrubs with care, as they can be tricky things to tangle with - but, on the other hand, they might be great to plant underneath your teenage daughter's window.

Another plant with a Latin name indicating fire is the flame vine, Pyrostegia venusta. This is one of the many glorious climbing plants from South America and like many of them, it's a member of the Bignonia family. As such it has pendulous, trumpeter-shaped flowers in bright flaming orange. Again, this is not quite fully frost hardy, but in warm conditions makes a fantastic cover for a pergola or fence.

I am sure their many customers, their fellow nursery owners, and the wider gardening public join me in wishing Laurie, Carol and their team of co-workers at the Garden Barn all the best for a speedy recovery from their fiery setback.

- Wairarapa Times-Age

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