Magazine article Sunset

Blazing Vines and Fiery Shrubs

Magazine article Sunset

Blazing Vines and Fiery Shrubs

Article excerpt


In a brilliant burst of color, many deciduous shrubs and vines put on their best display of the season this month. The show is worth the wait: their leaves turn fiery red, glowing orange, or vibrant yellow, transforming the garden into blazing patches of color.

Northwest and mountain gardeners may already be familiar with many of the plants that produce dramatic fall color--sumac, winged euonymus, and witch hazel are garden standards, especially where cold winters limit the use of many kinds of evergreen shrubs. In contrast, gardeners in milder climates often fail to take advantage of what these deciduous plants have to offer because there are so many useful evergreen ones. But when interspersed in garden beds against a backdrop of rich, green foliage, the shrubs and vines shown here produce an autumn display that adds a new dimension to the garden. Many of these plants also form beautiful flowers and berries, and they reveal an interesting branch structure after their leaves drop. Fall is the best time to select and plant these vines and shrubs.


The plants are all known to color well in the fall, but a number of factors can affect the show. The primary ones are genetics, climate, and cultural conditions.

Many of these shrubs and vines are propagated from cuttings or by other asexual methods and inherit the colorful characteristics of the parent. If you select a named hybrid like 'Crimson Queen' Japanese maple, you can depend on the plant to color up consistently, assuming other factors are favorable.

But some plants, especially those started from seed, can be variable. For instance, oakleaf hydrangea can turn an intense crimson or a disappointing yellow-brown. If you're not buying a hybrid or cultivated variety, try to select plants while they are changing color, so you know what you are getting. Keep in mind that growing conditions in the nursery may not always produce optimal coloring.

Even if a shrub or vine is known to produce outstanding fall color, the annual display depends on weather (see "Why do leaves turn color?") and cultural conditions. If nighttime temperatures stay warm through fall, leaves may turn yellow, but the show of purples and reds is inhibited. This effect is most typical of mild coastal climates.

Other weather-related effects that can inhibit or shorten the show are diseases, an early killing frost, heavy rains, overly wet soil, strong winds, and stress due to drought (although mild stress can enhance the show). …

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