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Sharon Thompson is our guest writer this week.  She is a well known South Carolina Garden Writer and Speaker.  Her articles appear in several Master Gardener newsletters, The State newspaper, and Lake Murray-Columbia Magazine.  She enjoys speaking to Master Gardener groups and Garden Clubs.


Article and photo by Sharon Thompson, Garden Writer and Speaker

In 1959, my sixth grade science curriculum included constructing a leaf book. My teacher, Mrs. Weatherell, gave us a list of specific leaves to collect and instructions on how to dry them flat - curling leaves signified last minute collecting. Once dried, we were to tape the leaves to paper, encase the pages in a folder and write a report on each specimen.

 It was an assignment I embraced. Perhaps I already knew that plants would remain a lifelong pursuit.  My Mom kept my leaf book and surprisingly, some of the leaves are still intact.

This time of year, I find myself collecting leaves again, admiring their outrageous beauty and wanting to preserve it.

In our woods, black gums have already released most of their astonishing crimson foliage, but dogwoods still hold on to their tawny reds. Clumps of red maples, planted years ago by the birds, wear lemon yellow uniforms but here and there, a few leaves boast intriguing blotches of bright red. Even some of the scarlet oaks are being true to their name while other oaks are beginning their decline into mud brown. Meanwhile, winged sumac is freshly dressed in ruby red.

Trees and shrubs respond to shorter daylight hours by gradually turning off the lights in their figurative kitchens: chlorophyll, which gives a leaf its green color, stops being produced.   When this happens, pigments called carotenoids, which have been masked by the chlorophyll throughout the growing season, have a chance to show their true colors: brown, orange and yellow. In the fall, conditions within some leaves will produce anthocyanins, which are responsible for red pigments.

One group of shrubs I am always sad to see drop their fall raiment is fothergilla. While not a name that rolls off your tongue (it honors a British physician of the 1700’s, Dr. John Fothergill), this native shrub is one of the finest for fall impact. Changing color late in the season, fothergilla’s blue-green summer foliage morphs to an Impressionistic palette of oranges, corals and reds. 

Happy in part shade to part sun, the dwarf form, Fothergilla gardenii (USDA zones 5-9), matures in the 4'- 6' range while its big brother, Fothergilla major (zones 5-8), can reach the 10' mark. Both are easy to grow with average moisture and occasional fertilizer. Before the leaves come out in the spring, the tips of the slender, zig-zaggy branches display two-inch long, fragrant, white blossoms that resemble bottlebrushes. The sturdy foliage is similar in shape to its first cousin, the witch hazels.

While having a reputation as a suckering plant, my clay soil seems to keep dwarf fothergilla in check. But I would gladly give over more garden space to this fall dazzler. The cultivar, ‘Mt. Airy,’ is the most readily available locally and for good reason: Its reliability and easy-to-grow nature made it a Georgia Gold Medal Selection in 1994.

After I gathered this week's colorful fall ornaments, I put them between the pages of a phone book to dry, ready to discover them on some blustery winter or blistering summer day and remember the radiance of fall.

---Posted November 6, 2009---


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GardenSMART Featured Article

Written by Joan Maloof, Photographs by Robert Llewellyn

Trees don't have two eyes like we do, yet they can see. They know how much light is hitting their leaves, and they know the quality of that light, too. They know if it's summer or winter by the length of the day, and they know if it's noon or afternoon by the wavelength of the light. Read more...

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