Fall Foliage

Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum)

Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum)

Now is the time to enjoy the radiant foliage of autumn, even in the San Fernando Valley. To be sure, leaves color more brilliantly in climates with a colder fall season than our own. Yet there are a fair number of trees that can be planted locally that will fulfill our longing for the golds, scarlets and purples associated with these late-November days.
Ashes (Fraxinus species) are the trees of choice for those who are particularly fond of golden foliar effulgence. Supreme among these trees is the velvet ash (Fraxinus velutina), native to the Southwest, of which “Modesto” is the most popular variety.
Unfortunately, the Modesto ash is a tree that suffers from widespread horticultural ignorance about its culture and habit of growth. It is commonly planted as a street tree under fairly low utility wires, as if it were some sort of arboreal dwarf, with the result that it is mercilessly hacked back as its canopy reaches the wires. Left to its own devices, unpruned and allowed to reach its natural shape and size, it is a magnificent 50-foot specimen with arching scaffold branches bedecked with shimmering velvety leaves.
Presently, Modesto ash specimens are showing off their fantastic burnished leaves all over the Valley. If you have any say in the upkeep of one of these trees, put in a word for allowing it to grow without restriction; if possible, avoid pruning it altogether. Within a few years, you will see a perfectly proportioned spherical canopy silhouetted against the sky.
As a young tree, the Modesto ash possesses an uncannily smooth and iridescent pale green bark. As an adult tree, its bark takes on a completely different – if still distinct – appearance, turning various shades of brown with deep-cut furrows. It is susceptible to leaf-scalding anthracnose fungus and sap-dripping woolly blue aphids, yet pruning – as it encourages development of weak, succulent growth – may give these pests a stronger foothold than they would otherwise have.
If your soil is especially alkaline, you should plant the Fan-Tex ash (Fraxinus velutina Rio Grande), which is also transformed into a golden dome each fall. The Raywood ash (Fraxinus oxycarpa) is a smaller tree, reaching about 35 feet in height, its foliage turning burgundy and purple.
If I lived in an estate with a long entryway, I would plant a colonnade of liquidambar trees, on either side, all the way down to the main road. The unique beauty of these trees is found in their uncompromising vertical growth habit, in their maple-shaped leaves and, of course, in their luminescent fall color, which runs the spectrum from canary yellow to dark burgundy red.
The rap against the liquidambar (Liquidambar styraciflua) is twofold: It has thick surface roots that make planting under it impossible and it has abundant prickly seed capsules which, when strewn upon the ground, eliminate foot travel in its vicinity. Its roots might indeed make it the wrong tree for a modest-sized yard, but those pesky seed capsules have finally been eliminated in the newly released Rotundiloba variety.
A list of local trees with yellow or golden foliage would include honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra Italica) and ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba). A small tree with leaves that turn every color in the rainbow is the Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum). It has been planted as a street tree along Ventura Boulevard near Woodman Avenue in Sherman Oaks.
If you want fruit in addition to autumn foliage color, there are two trees you will want to grow. One is the persimmon (Diospyros species), whose leaves glow with yellow, orange and scarlet in the fall, and the other is the pomegranate (Punica granatum), a gold-leafed tree come November.
Locally, Treeland carries a greater variety of trees than any other retail nursery. Treeland is located just outside the east entrance to Hidden Hills, bounded by Valley Circle Drive and the Ventura Freeway.
< Gardening Tip of the Week
It is important to select your colorful leafed tree at this time of year. Otherwise, there is no way of knowing what fall colors you will see. Even though two trees belong to the same species, they may color differently. An example of this is the crape myrtle, with some trees coloring more in the yellow to orange spectrum and some more in the red to burgundy range. Where crape myrtles are concerned, examine the trunks as well. There are a few exquisite, highly prized cinnamon-colored trunks in every batch of crape myrtles.

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