Bright late-autumn colour

Sunday, 17 May 2020

We have had some pretty gloomy days over the past week, but I have been cheered up by some bright late-autumn colour in my back garden. At the moment, the view is dominated by the brilliant red, gold and yellow leaves of the giant Liquidambar at the bottom of the garden. I would never recommend anyone (except if you have acres) to plant one of these but we inherited it with the garden and I think it has doubled in size over the past 25 years! But I love seeing its autumn leaves and as you will see on the accompanying video, I let them lie around on the ground for a while before raking them up! They also fall into other plants, and I leave them there for a while too, before collecting them all up for the compost pile. In one area of my garden, around the old cubby, there are some plants with hot-coloured flowers that happily echo the hues of the Liquidambar's autumnal foliage, and we see some of these in the video.

Billbergia pyramidalis

Bilbergia pyramidalis is a very easily grown bromeliad, and I have a few clumps of them in a shady part of this garden. The flower is like a thick red brush with purple tips to its bristles. It is not a long-lived inflorescence but provides a welcome splash of colour. Nearby grows a rather scrappy specimen of Reinwardtia indica. This is an undemanding small shrub about 1 m tall, sometimes called linum or yellow flax. It has pretty, rounded flowers in a cheerful golden yellow hue, and these appear now and continue on until July. It should be cut back hard at the end of winter to keep it compact.

Another small, easily grown shrub is Ardisia crenata, known as the coral berry. It is a small evergreen shrub (ht 1-1.8 m); its main attraction is the whorled layers of rich red (or more rarely, pale yellow) berries which appear amongst its lush tiers of leaves in autumn. The berries last throughout winter, and unusually for a berried shrub it enjoys a shaded position. My plant dates from the time this garden area was shaded by an enormous oak tree, but it doesn't mind the extra sun it now receives. I forgot to mention in the video that behind all these shrubs there are several big specimens of bright red Camellia japonica 'Wildfire' that will be out soon; Camellia sasanqua 'Yuletide' is already flowering and can be briefly glimpsed in the footage. These provide a good backdrop to the other bright colours through winter.

Abutilon shrubs continue to flourish and will do so until the end of November, when I will prune them very hard. They are such great value in Sydney gardens and will grow in sun or part-shade. All the Dahlia plants that were in bloom the last time I filmed this part of the garden are now collapsing into sad heaps of withered sticks. These will be all soon be cut to the ground and the tubers left in situ over winter. I distract myself from this unattractive sight by gazing at the vivid golden daisies of the shrubby mountain marigold (Tagetes lemmonii ht 1-1.5 m) that are out at the moment. They are very cheerful little blooms that will be around till August. If the shrub is lightly trimmed then, a second flush of flowers may occur in late spring. The ferny foliage smells exactly of ripe passionfruit! It is a drought-tolerant plant for a sunny position.

Also offering glowing colour now are the chubby, cone-like flowers of Kniphofia 'Zululandii' (syn. 'Winter Cheer', ht 1.5m). These yellow and orange 'pokers' are a heart-warming sight on bleak days. As mentioned in the video, after the flowers are spent, I cut the whole plant right to the ground and give the leaves to a friend who weaves them into fabulous baskets and sculptures. Fresh leaves will regrow soon after.

Salvia gesneriiflora 'Tequila' is one of the largest of all salvias that I still grow and I forgot to mention it last week. This cultivar has blackish calyces, which really enhances the large glowing red flowers. It blooms from late autumn to spring. It can grow to 4m tall, but if cut back by half in summer as well as pruning almost to the ground after its flowering period, it can be kept a bit lower. Nearby grows a gold and tawny florists' chrysanthemum Dendranthema x grandiflorum. This one ties in so well with all the autumn leaves that are lying around at the moment! These probably should be staked but I just let mine wander around and flop.

Finally, we see the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima (ht to 3.5 m). Its bright red bracts are clustered into the shape of large flowers, lasting for many weeks in late autumn and winter. It blooms best in full sun with fertile soil. Nearby, the unusual annual Euphorbia cyathophora (ht 1.2 m) is still around, echoing the 'blooms' of its much taller cousin.

I hope all is going well in your autumn gardens and that you continue to enjoy being in them when the weather is clement!