Good as Gold

Credit: iStockphoto

Northern autumns are golden. In gardens and town plantings, the gold of lindens (Tilia cordata and cultivars, T. americana) and ash (Fraxinus spp. and hybrids) are spectacular, but it is in the countryside that the true colour shines through, millions of acres of it. The flaming gold of aspen (Populus tremuloides), the yellow-gold of paper birch (Betula papyrifera), and the unexpected golden flare of the deciduous conifer tamarack (Larix laricina) light up crisp fall days against a backdrop of incredibly pure blue skies.

For those gardeners longing for the deeper fall colours of the east coast, there are many choices. Of all the hardy maples, the best and brightest is the Northwood red maple (Acer rubrum ‘Northwood’), a Minnesota selection that flames bright clear red with the first hard frost. A beautiful tree at any time of year, it is the star of my fall garden.

This is followed by the deeper red tones of the northern red oak (Quercus rubra, formerly Q. borealis). It may not be quite as hardy as the tough and widely grown bur oak (Q. macrocarpa), but it still does well in the zone 4 of Prince George (where there are mature trees) and in my zone-3 garden outside of town. The bur oak, a handsome tree as it matures, turns an autumn colour charitably described as bronze, less charitably as paper-bag brown.

The many hardy selections of eastern species of mountain ash (such as Sorbus americana, S. decora), as well as the native western species (S. scopulina and S. sitchensis) turn breathtaking shades of orange and russet-red, decorated with clusters of orange-red fruit, and – occasionally – flocks of cedar waxwings devouring the fruit. The little-known but extremely hardy mountain ash relatives, ‘Ivan’s Belle’ (which is a hybrid of Sorbus and Crataegus) and ‘Ivan’s Beauty’ (a cross of Sorbus and Aronia), bred in Russia for vitamin C-rich fruit production, not only have glorious burgundy-red fall colour but also large clusters of deep-purple edible fruit. As a bonus for the environment, the trees are sterile; the fruit are seedless, so there is no danger of introducing a new invasive plant here.

In the shrubby understory, dogwoods (the native Cornus stolonifera, C. alba and all their cultivars) and highbush cranberries (B.C.-natives Viburnum edule and V. trilobum, eastern V. cassinoides, and the European V. opulus, and all their respective cultivars) put on quite a show of their own, in reds and burgundies. Some varieties of roses add extra value in the fall, with foliage deepening to brilliant reds and deep, almost black purples. Some of the older Prairie-bred cultivars, such as ‘Aurora’ and ‘Suzanne’ excel. They are hard to find, but well worth the effort.

If that isn’t enough fall colour for you, the perennial layer adds its own notes to the symphony, with the varied and beautiful red tones found in many hardy geraniums, especially cultivars of Geranium x cantabrigiense and G. pratense, perennial potentilla (Potentilla tridentata, also called Sibbaldiopsis tridentata) and elephant ears (Bergenia cordifolia and its cultivars).
If you’re longing for fall colour, there’s no shortage of choices, and an abundance of native and hardy plants are waiting to put on a show.

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: Acer rubrum ‘Northwood’ (Northwood red maple) – zone 3 • Bergenia cordifolia and cultivars (elephant ears) – zone 3 • Betula papyrifera (paper birch) – zone 2 • Cornus stolonifera, C. alba and cultivars (dogwood) – both zone 2 • Fraxinus spp. and hybrids (ash) vary from zones 3 to 6 depending on species • Geranium x cantabrigiense – zone 4 • G. pratense (hardy geranium) – zone 3 • Larix laricina (tamarack, larch) – zone 1 • Populus tremuloides (aspen) – zone 1 • Potentilla tridentata – zone 2 • Q. macrocarpa (bur oak) – zone 3 • Quercus rubra, formerly Q. borealis (northern red oak) – zone 4 • Rosa ‘Aurora’ and ‘Suzanne’ – zone 3 • Sorbus americana – zone 3 • S. decora – zone 3 • S. scopulina – zone 3 • S. sitchensis (mountain ash) – zone 2 • Sorbus x Aronia ‘Ivan’s Beauty’ – zone 3 • Sorbus x Crataegus (syn. x Crataegosorbus miczurinii) ‘Ivan’s Belle’ – zone 3 • Tilia cordata and cultivars – zone 3 • T. americana (linden) – zone 3 • Viburnum edule – zone 3 • V. cassinoides and cultivars (highbush cranberry) – zone 2 • V. opulus – zone 4 • V. trilobum – zone 2

Barbara Rayment operates Birch Creek Nursery, in Prince George, where she grows and experiments with a wide variety of hardy plants.