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Orange you glad it’s Fall?

Our giant white oak has yet to change color or drop leaves but the hickory behind is golden orange.

Here in the South, we never know what kind of fall foliage to expect.  Some years the leaves simply turn brown and slough off.   Other time like this year we have a radiant Autumn with intense leaf color that continues for weeks.

In celebration we have spent a lot of time on the woodland trails and on the back deck admiring the display.

In late afternoon, we can be found gazing to the west toward the mockernut hickory next door which is back-lit by the setting sun.

The hickory is framed by the giant white oak that inspired me to buy this place.

In the fall color department, the white oak is a bit of a slacker.  The hickory, however, has been dependably golden every autumn.

The landscape plants make a nice transition to the orange dogwoods in the edge of the woods.

I have lived here for almost 30 years and have watched the mockernut grow up.  When it was still fairly young, a limb from the white oak topped the hick.  It looked kind of rough and I considered taking it out.  I am so grateful that my better judgement prevailed because the tree outgrew the injury and now the only sign is a slightly kinky leader.

Mockernut hickory is known in the plant world as a sort of prankster.   Its nuts are large and almost round but after the husk falls off, only a tiny nut and even tinier kernel are left.  I think my mockernut was planted by a squirrel who forgot to come back and nibble the tiny kernel.

On the other side of white oak central, I planted a bed – full of Japanese maples, native azaleas, bigleaf magnolia and sweetshrub.

A study in textural extremes - a golden cowcumber leaf has settled in with a threadleaf Japanese maple.

I selected a coral bark maple a.k.a ‘Sango-kaku’ for its intense red winter twigs.  I was disappointed the first fall when the leaves turned yellow instead of red.  I soon learned that after golden yellow, the leaves would morph into a beautiful shade of apricot and stay on the trees for a very long time.

I compensated by planting a threadleaf Japanese maple that does turn red in the fall.  I believe the variety is called ‘Garnet’.  It is quite striking in combination with all the yellow, gold and orange in the area.

I chose three bigleaf magnolias for their  fragrant spring blooms and striking coarse textured leaves.  The leaves of this cowcumber (as they call it in the country) can be up to a yard long.

As I walked through the back garden the other day, one of those enormous cowcumber leaves had drifted down and settled on top of the Garnet threadleaf maple.  It was quite a study in contrast – one of the most coarse textured leaves ever nestled in with one of the finest textured.

Proving once more that Autumn is a season of surprises.

 

Patience Is Rewarded

I love the way cowcumber's giant leaves refract the light.

I planted three bigleaf magnolias or cowcumbers  (Magnolia macrophylla) over 20 years ago.

This magnolia is a shade loving understory tree.   I purchased three gallon sized plants and sited them beneath the 100 foot white oak in my back yard.

The magnolias are clearly visible from my deck and for these 20+ years I have admired their giant leaves. They are bright green and up to 3 feet long.

That’s 36 inches long in case you are thinking that I made a typo.  On breezy days they undulate to reveal pale undersides.

I was happy with the foliage display but the years rolled by and my trees did not flower.

Cowcumber flowers are a foot across and intensely fragrant.

And while the foliage is quite spectacular, the flower are stunning as well.  They are cup shaped and about a foot across.  They are usually tinted pink or purple toward the center and are intensely fragrant.

Tiny beetle pollinators are drawn by the scent.  They bumble around in the flower intoxicated by the aroma and abundance of pollen and nectar.  Due to their clumsy revelling, a fruit forms that first resembles a cucumber and later a red seeded cone.

Since I know about plant propagation, I was pretty sure that I was getting no flowers because the trees were seed grown.  Seedlings of woody plants have to grow for many years before they begin to accumulate flowering hormones.  Whereas a cutting will usually have some of the hormone from the parent plant to jump start the process and will flower much earlier in life.

Even though I knew the reason, I was beginning to be impatient after 20 years.  Finally this year, all three of the cowcumbers bore a full canopy of flowers.

Needles to say, I am ecstatic.

It reminds me of my youth.  In college I studied Magnolia macrophylla in my Plant Materials class.  My teacher, Lester Estes, had shown us a small 6′ specimen on the Mississippi State University Campus.  He told us that the tree would get over 50 feet tall and described the bold fragrant flowers.  Soon after, I went camping with a pack of my plant pals in Northern Alabama at Bankhead National Forest.  It was spring and the most wonderful scent permeated the air.  We all wandered around following our noses and inhaling the aroma.  Finally someone looked up at a smooth barked behemoth tree with giant leaves and said “Wait a minute – is that a …?”  “Bigleaf Magnolia” we all chorused.

So now, my own trees, which have not quite attained behemoth status, are in bloom in my own back yard.  The scent is intoxicating but the time travel back to my youth is priceless.


 

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