Have you ever experienced Spring and Autumn back-to-back? I have, often, and it leaves me giddy every time. It’s a fabulous feeling to become a time traveller, standing under a blossom tree one day and a fiery explosion of Fall colours the next. How do I do it? I climb on a plane and go to work on the other side of the world…
I don’t mind the mundane aspects of travel because I’m smart enough to realise there are plenty of good things that spin off from it, and one of them is just this. I get to look at Nature in a way that was once impossible. Both seasons are magic and I get to have them in an intense hit.
I’m just home from a US fall and it’s spring here in Australia. Sitting at my desk I’ve been looking at the pictures I took while I was away, and when I wander outside I stumble across one of our magnolias (Felix, in case you’re interested) with the biggest flowers I’ve ever seen it produce. Take a look below: that’s my hand, one of our office lunch plates and a Felix flower. Impressive, yes?
Looking at the Felix tree in blossom got me thinking about why we gardeners get so caught up with enthusiasm for trees especially at these particular two seasons. Or why landscapers make a point of using trees that blossom and produce autumnal colour. The answer is probably obvious on some levels, but I’m about to take a closer look…
Let’s start with some biology basics. Trees come in two basic types – those that have foliage on them no matter what time of year it is (evergreen), and those that drop everything and go naked through winter (deciduous). If you live somewhere hot and glaringly bright, evergreen trees are brilliant because they help shade you and your roof.
But I’m more interested here in the deciduous trees because these are the ones that seem to go through such a transformation in spring and autumn. Take, for example, the weeping cherry tree below. You’d probably walk past this tree all winter and not look once at it’s bare branches, but come spring, I drove up the drive and literally leapt out of the car to give it its dues in oohs and ahs. I think I bugged everyone in the office that day saying, “Have you seen the cherry tree?”
That mass of blossom has a purpose apart from making us all smile. Plants flower to attract insects which then help the plant produce fruits, seeds, and in the fullness of time, baby trees. (Ornamental varieties often just produce the flowers which is nice if you don’t really want to deal with a fruit factory.)
The thing is, this same ornamental cherry tree also puts on a showy moment in autumn when the leaves colour up, and there’s a reason for that.
Do you remember photosynthesis, where the leaves act like little factories, essentially converting water, air and sunshine into food for the plant? In deciduous trees the factory opens for business when the first fresh leaves unfold, and it’s business as usual until the leaves drop to the ground. The point is, each tree needs to put away some of the more precious materials involved in the process before those leaves say goodbye, and that’s where the fall colour comes in. Take a look below and you’ll see what I mean.
As the plant takes back what it needs to hold onto for the next spring, the foliage begins to reveal its hidden colours. It’s functional and beautiful, especially when the sun shines through the leaves (below).
The point of all this is (yes there’s a point), when you’re choosing a tree to plant in your garden it’s worth thinking about these two seasons. I mean, why wouldn’t you consider these two seasons in particular, and think about your options for spring blossom and autumn colour? In spring, magnolias are magnificent. Cherry, plum and crab apples are beautifully frothy. Come autumn, they all put on a colourful show along with many other traditional fall favourites like the maple and the golden ginko (below). So if you’re lucky enough to be faced with the prospect of planting a tree, do your research. You’ll soon be ooh-ing and ah-ing twice each year, even though Nature will make you wait six months between blossom and leaf colour & drop.