Los Angeles Trees With Fall Colors

sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)  photo by Rob Young

sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) photo by Rob Young

A common lament from transplanted Easterners who reside in our area concerns the lack of foliage that turns color in the fall.
Well, you can’t expect to have balmy weather at almost any moment and still demand leaves that turn red and gold, a phenomenon that requires colder temperatures than we normally experience. Often, by the time it gets chilly enough to make leaves turn color, they have already fallen from the tree.
This fall, however, trees with the capacity to change color have done so with a flourish in our town. Thanks to a very cold November weekend – which burnt the leaves of tropical plants – the liquidambars, Japanese maples and evergreen pears look more brilliant than they customarily do at this time.
In Los Angeles, the liquidambar or sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), a columnar species with spiny spherical seed capsules, is the most frequently planted tree when fall color is wanted. It has probably gained popularity
because its leaves resemble that of the maple (to which it is unrelated) and gives us the feeling that we are right back in New England. It is especially beautiful this year thanks to the cold. Try and find the Burgundy or Palo Alto varieties.
Yet there is a tree far more colorful than the liquidambar, and it doesn’t need a cold snap to express itself. This is the Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis), a deciduous shade tree that turns a brilliant red- orange each and every autumn. It can become large, however, and should probably be planted along the edge of your property where it won’t steal too much light from your other plants.
Certain walnuts, ashes and ginkgoes, all easily grown in Los Angeles, turn the classic autumn gold. You may one day discover the Southern California black walnut (Juglans californica) growing as a volunteer in your back yard. It is not sold in garden centers but can be found in canyons throughout our area, where the nuts can be picked for eating or planting. The nuts are small compared to the common English or Persian walnuts, but the taste is excellent. The velvet or Arizona ash (Fraxinus velutina), also with bright yellow autumn leaves, is a heat lover that is used as a street tree in the west San Fernando Valley.
One of the best-adapted ornamental trees for Los Angeles is the smog- resistant ginkgo or maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba). In our climate, it usually stays below 50 feet and does not create much shade. The leaves are fan-shaped and softly ridged. Excellent specimens may be viewed at the Japanese garden that is part of the water reclamation facility in the Sepulveda Basin (near Burbank and Woodley), and also at the county arboretum in Arcadia.
Sugar maples can grow in Los Angeles, but it doesn’t get cold enough for them to turn color as they do back East. Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), however, are suited to the colder valley and canyon regions of our city, and come in many varieties, each with a different leaf shape and autumn color. They grow slowly and make fine container specimens, but require complete protection from summer heat or their leaves will burn. The paperbark maple (Acer griseum) is a small tree with peeling bark and coral red leaves. I have never seen it locally, though it grows well in Northern California and would be worth trying in our area.
The barberry family contains several shrubby, cold-tolerant plants that color brilliantly in the fall. The heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) has declined in popularity in recent years – no doubt because it only produces a few ordinary white flowers – despite the uniqueness of its soft and graceful fernlike leaves. In recent years, several compact and dwarf varieties of Nandina have been developed, all needing more heat protection than the species. The Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) has spiny leaves reminiscent of holly and bright yellow flowers that are followed by edible blue fruit. The Japanese barberry (Berberis Thunbergii) turns scarlet this time of year before losing its leaves.
The Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum) is a breathtaking species that grows well in the valleys around Los Angeles but somehow has never gotten the publicity it deserves. In the fall, its leaves are bright and glowing like so many colored fluorescent lights. The smokebush (Cotinus Coggygria) has elliptical leaves that turn purple before dropping in the winter.
If you insist on having colorful leaves during most of the year, you can select from several varieties of purple leaf plum trees. In the shrub and ground-cover departments, choose a variegated cultivar of euonymous, aucuba, juniper, hydrangea, coleus, spider plant or periwinkle. There is even a variety of impatiens that has leaves colored green and white.

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