The colour red gets attention. It is the primal colour of fire, evoking passion, vitality and celebration in many cultures. If you wish you could capture those rich autumn shades but think you don't have the room, you're in luck. Hot reds, lush oranges and zesty yellows of autumn trees can be found in shrubs and climbers. Many are perfect as focal points in a small courtyard, or as eyecatching colour to liven up a border garden.
Vines and creepers
Boston ivy is easily recognised for its magnificent autumn colour at a couple of Auckland locations - the Zoo in Western Springs and the Northern Club on Princes St.
I regularly drive past the zoo, which is surrounded by a stone wall, much of it covered in Boston ivy, Parthenocissus tricuspidata. I hardly notice the green summer foliage rambling over the wall but, in autumn, its fiery tones are a standout.
The leafy, romantic appeal of the historic Northern Club, near Auckland University, is a visual feast all year. The ivy covering the building gives seasonal interest to passersby, and is a showstopper in autumn.
Boston ivy, which is related to the grape and is from the Vitaceae family, doesn't require specially built structures to grow up. Grape vines require support for their tendrils to latch on to, but Boston ivy secretes calcium carbonate through little discs so the vine can adhere to bare wall. More concrete or stone structures could be covered with this wonderful plant to beautify the city, help absorb CO2 and cool buildings in summer. But it does need annual maintenance to keep it away from joinery and gutters.
When removing Boston ivy or Virginia creeper, cut and let die back first then the discs will come away which makes it easier on the wall surface. English ivy attaches itself with sticky roots and should be avoided on buildings.
Short on space?
Sometimes confused with Boston ivy, which has a simple palmate leaf with three lobes, Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, is the same genus but has five leaflets. It is also a rampant creeper that would be a handful in most backyards. Fortunately, the Chinese Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus henryana, is a more manageable variety to grow at home.
Related vines suitable for smaller spaces include the ornamental Amur grape Vitis amurensis, whose foliage turns scarlet, and Vitis vinifera 'Purpurea', which turns a burgundy hue. These have tendrils so need a suitable structure to grow on.
Compact trees and shrubs
The Japanese maple, Acer palmatum, provides some of the best autumn colour with its claret tones.
This timeless classic is an airy, delicate tree with paper-thin leaves. Plant to capture shafts of afternoon light between buildings, or near an inky-black reflection pool.
Acer palmatum Sango-Kaku (also known as Acer Senkaki) has green leaves that turn yellow in autumn. When these fall, beautiful red bark is revealed. Some smaller maple cultivars can be grown in large pots, and a few have red-toned foliage all year round.
Other small trees with standout autumn foliage include witchhazel (Hamamelis), red vein Enkianthus, azalea Pavlova and Viburnum plicatum 'Mariesii'.
NZ native colour?
Few New Zealand natives are deciduous, consequently we don't get autumn colour in our forests. But some native plants provide colour interest year-round. Horopito, Pseudowintera colorata, has mottled greenish-red leaves that become redder in full sun. New growth in spring is bright red. This shrub will liven up a border garden and can be trimmed to a small hedge. Horopito is a Rongoa plant (Maori medicinal) and a culinary herb that adds a peppery flavour to food. Other compact autumn-hued natives include cultivars of Lophomyrtus, Pittosporum, Coprosma, Phormium (Flax) and Dodonaea (Akeake).
Rosehips come in an array of shapes, sizes and colours from golden yellow to rich orange to dark red. Rugosa roses produce the fattest, juiciest-looking red hips. These are rich in vitamin C and make the best jellies, syrups and teas. A cluster of rosehips in a vase is a pretty way to bring autumn colour indoors.
Other autumn-fruiting beauties include non-astringent persimmon Fuyu. This elegant low-growing tree's orange fruit are followed by red foliage.
Chilean guava is a compact shrub that can be shaped into a low hedge or topiary. The fragrant red berries are tasty at this time of year, and the plant is a decorative, useful addition to a small garden.
• Next week: Inspirational places to visit for autumn colour.