The spectacle of the changing autumn leaf colour in the states of New England in America is famous world-wide, but you don’t need to travel across the Atlantic to experience one of the natural world’s great wonders. October and November are the best times to visit botanic gardens, parks or arboretums here in Britain for a taste of nature’s blaze of colour.
The changing leaf colour is caused by the drop in temperatures and shortening days. Deciduous trees and shrubs react to these changes by reducing the amount of chlorophyll in their leaves. Chlorophyll is used by plants in spring and summer to harness energy from the sun and create food for the plant to grow. As winter approaches and the plant prepares for its winter dormancy this chlorophyll is no longer needed. Chlorophyll shows itself in leaves as a green pigment and as this pigment fades other colourful pigments are revealed. These purples, reds, yellows and oranges transform our countryside and gardens during the autumn months and are like nature’s last hurrah before winter sets in.
If you want to add some autumnal colour to your own garden there are plenty of trees and shrubs that can be grown, even in the smallest of spaces. Acers are probably the most well-known with their distinctive palmate leaves that turn a kaleidoscope of colours. Some can make quite substantial trees but others, such as ‘Little Princess’ are perfectly happy growing in pots.
Liquidambars are one of the first trees to start to change colour, in late August, and over the next couple of months the foliage turns from mid-green to fiery flame-like tones of red, orange and purple until it looks like the whole tree is alight. Some can grow into large specimens but there are ones that are more suitable for smaller spaces such as ‘Slender Silhouette’.
Cercidiphyllum japoncium, otherwise known as the katsura, is one of my favourites. Attractive heart-shaped leaves fade into tones of golden yellow and orange in mid-autumn. You can often smell a katsura tree before you see it, as the autumnal leaves take on a scent of cinder toffee.
Cotinus is a popular garden shrub, with smoky purple summer foliage and plumes of frothy flowers, before autumn transforms it into a glowing mass of orange and golden hues.
For a spot of leaf-peeping visit this selection of temples to trees:
Westonbirt, Gloucestershire – Perhaps the most well know arboretum in Britain with a fantastic array of trees. It does get very busy though at this time of year.
Batsford, Gloucestershire – This arboretum in the Cotswolds is home to the largest private collection of trees and shrubs in the country.
The Valley Gardens, Windsor – A hidden gem in the vast Windsor Great Park that’s free to wander around.
Crarae Himalayan Garden, Inverary, Argyll and Bute – Climb the paths past the tumbling stream and densely planted hillside to marvel at the view out over Loch Fyne.
Himalayan Garden, Ripon, North Yorkshire – This private garden opens for several weeks every autumn so visitors can experience the fabulous colours of the impressive collection of trees and shrubs including liquidambars, cotinus and acers.