Autumn Colors
from November 1997

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While collecting Quercus kelloggii and Cornus nuttallii this last weekend in the Sierras I found myself in competition with the busy, bushy tailed squirrels. We were all gathering in the harvest, just as we've been doing throughout the nursery. My travels led over to the Eastern Sierra to once again renew the spirit with the soft colors of seasonal change. While drinking in those exquisite shades of yellow, orange, purple and silver I tried to think how we might use garden plants to emulate the grand sweeps of color in the mountains.

Maybe it is the angle of the light in these autumn months, but each year I renew a love of native grasses, with their delicate flower stems that glow in the backlight along the road edge. Nevin has been selecting several grasses for many years now and his Festuca idahoensis 'Warren Peak' makes 6" hummocks of narrow bright green leaves that become grey-green in age. The flower stems rise 1 to 2' high with a silvery to pale pink color. As with many grass seeds, these glisten in the sun. Another choice grass from Nevin is Festuca idahoensis 'Muse Meadow', a blue green foliaged form with arching leaves that reach about 1'. Both of these prefer full sun, well-drained soil and moderate watering which may be tapered off to little supplemental water once established. They are easy care plants for a bank or hillside planting. Hardy to 0 degrees Farenheit or less.

Just south of Bridgeport I finally realized that the sweeping mass of smoky purple shrubs were stems of the deciduous Salix, one of our mountain willows. The willow leaves in the canyons were brilliant yellow, and soon will drop to reveal this cloudy hue that I call smoky purple. Hypericum x inodorum 'Albury Purple' gives a darker, richer coppery-purple than the willow and does not attain that fall yellow (and just barely goes deciduous here), but is a similar size; 3 to 5' high and 6' wide. It is stunning in mass along a fence line or bordering an entry, and isn't fussy as to soil. Give sun and moderate watering, Small yellow flowers bloom in summer followed by red to black fruits. Hardy to 0 deg. F.

An alternate smoky color comes with Macleaya cordata, or Plume poppy, with 4" lobed bluish-grey leaves on stems to 5' in height growing into dense thickets from underground rhizomes. In summer they are topped by airy plumes of small cream-colored flowers with pink-bronze colored buds. The leaves turn creamy yellow in fall before the stems die back. Lovely in back of a border or against a hillside. Hardy to 0 deg.F. and prefers sun, moderate watering and most soils.

Rusty red and yellow leaves of Rhododendron occidentale and Ribes roezlii greeted me beside the Merced River near Happy Isles, and along the roadside into Lundy Canyon. Nevin and I have both collected seed of our native azalea and he has successfully grown cuttings of the gooseberry. Spiraea x bumalda 'Goldflame' provides the same bright fall color as the native azalea. It reaches 2' with bronze new growth, now displaying yellow and copper leaves with dark pink flowers from summer into fall. Grow it in sun or light shade with moderate water and well-drained soil. To 0 deg.

There are so many other possible choices that bring the mountain colors to our gardens. Plants of Artemisia, Corokia, Perovskia and Panicum are just a few of the many choices to bring subtle fall colors to the garden.