Flaming Fall Flowers and Foliage

sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)  photo by Rob Young

sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) photo by Rob Young

“Flaming Colors of Fall” sounds like an ode to the foliage of New England maples and oaks, which turn orange, crimson and gold this time of year. However, there are plants right in our own back yards that satisfy our need for blazing autumn color – if not always with their leaves, then certainly with their flowers.
Let’s begin with the African tulip tree, Spathodea campanulata. In all fairness, this tree is somewhat risky for the San Fernando Valley since, although it is supposed to survive temperatures down to 28 degrees, it is still considered frost sensitive. I saw a glorious 30-foot specimen of this tree blooming in Thousand Oaks; it should do well anywhere between there and the ocean. The African tulip tree has also been spotted in Pasadena, Altadena and Azusa, communities whose winter is generally a bit warmer than that experienced in Van Nuys, Reseda or Woodland Hills.
The 4-inch-long, 2-inch-wide chalice-shaped flowers of the African tulip tree are truly breathtaking. They are of a deep red-orange color and may be seen at any time of the year, although they are on display most prominently in fall and spring. The lush green foliage of this tree will remind you of the leaves found on trumpet vines (Bignonia family), which are its botanical relatives.
Another plant with flaming flowers this time of year is the spectacular leguminous shrub known as the red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima). Its blooms resemble the plumage of a tropical bird yet it is a desert plant requiring a minimum of water.
Despite its dazzling beauty, the red bird of paradise will live but a few years unless it is planted in very well-drained soil. It should be pruned hard, just before spring, to half or less of its mature, 10-to-12-foot height. Otherwise, it will get leggy and produce progressively fewer flowers each year. Red bird of paradise seeds and pods are highly toxic.
If you have a slope or other large area that you cannot afford to elaborately landscape, much less maintain, you should consider covering it with another fiery-flowered plant, cape honeysuckle. Native to South Africa, the aggressive cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) is a relative of the African tulip tree, with flowers that are also reddish orange. It, too, is marginal in terms of its cold tolerance. However, if it can get a foothold on your sunny or lightly shaded slope or rugged terrain, you will never have to worry about planting there again.
Although it will spring up to a height of 6 feet or more, it is famous for its stems that grow horizontally along the soil surface, rooting wherever they make contact with earth. In fact, cape honeysuckle will not abide any competition where it finds success. It will quickly swallow up or strangle other plants growing nearby. Cape honeysuckle blooms from fall until spring. As a species planted for erosion control, it has no equal.
The list of Valley trees whose foliage turns color in the fall is not long but bears repeating for those whose recollection of New England, this time of year, influences their tree planting decisions. The liquidambar has maple shaped leaves that turn gold, red and purple. The problem with planting liquidambar is its root system, which grows along the soil surface. As these roots develop, it eventually becomes impossible to grow anything at all under the tree. Nevertheless, due to its glorious color this time of year, liquidambar must top our list of trees with distinguished autumn foliage.
More manageable trees whose foliage changes color would include: Modesto ash, whose leaves turn to gold; crepe myrtle, with variously colored foliage; Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum), with luminescent, multicolored leaves; persimmon, with red-orange leaves; ginkgo and birch, both of which turn golden yellow; and Chinese pistachio, which turns yellow, orange and red.
TIP OF THE WEEK: Fescue lawns, such as the popular Marathon variety, should be fertilized one last time by the end of this month. November fertilization is the most important one of the year for cool-season grasses. The soil is still warm enough to encourage growth of strong roots that will be needed to cope with next year’s heat. Use a slow-release fertilizer formulated especially for lawn grasses.

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