Acers are autumn aces in any garden

Peter Dowdall stresses the difference between Acer and Liquidambar species but revels in their autumn glory.

I’m one of seven children and like anyone with brothers and sisters I am often called the wrong name.

Something which happened much more as a child, it’s not something that bothers now and I see myself doing it with my nieces and nephews today, and my friend’s children — going through the list of names until I land upon the right one.

Why am I wittering away about such things? Well my favourite genus bar none at this time of the year is Acer. It is also certainly in the running as my favourite genusfor all seasons.

Acers really steal the show in the garden at this time of year, but why I started this piece the way I did is because one of the most dramatic trees of all for a simply awesome and breathtaking display, is Liquidambar and in particular the variety ‘Worplesdon’.

If I could have in any way squeezed more adjectives into the last sentence to accentuate just how stunning it is at the moment, I would have. For such a special tree, it’s wrong that almost everyone who meets it for the first time will always mistake it for as an Acer.

It is not an Acer, it’s a Liquidambar, also referred to as Sweet Gum and the most spectacular variety is named after the sleepy village in Surrey, nestled between Guildford and Aldershot, (which is coincidentally where I lived whilest studying horticulture many years ago).

Worplesdon is, however, a tree that will need a larger garden. Don’t be tempted to squeeze it into a small space as it will outgrow it in time and what should be a special tree will become a problem.

The species Liquidambar styraciflua will give great colour, very much yellow, copper and russet, but Worplesdon will leave you speechless turning a deep blood red in autumn.

And Acers, with which it is often confused, and which up to now have stood gracefully in muted green during the summer, are now a blaze of fire. Bronze, orange, red, yellow and colours unnamed as yet, are found on the leaves of Acers during autumn.

The genus comprises over 100 species and at this stage the amount of varieties and cultivars must be in the thousands. The common name for Acer is Maple and is not to be confused as referring simply to the palmatum or Japanese types. The name covers a number of trees types, but I have yet to meet a maple that hasn’t painted the town red during October.

From the larger Acer platanoides types (Norway Maples) which will tolerate nearly everything that nature throws at them, through to the altogether more delicate and fussy Acer palmatums.

Some,with their very finely dissected leaves such as Acer palmatum ‘Stella Rossa’ won’t even tolerate a conversation about the wind, let alone a high gale.

One Acer that I only discovered this year when it literally stopped me in my tracks with its seasonal display, is Acer freemanii ‘Autumn Blaze’. Growing to about 10 metres (30’) after 20 years or so it will tolerate most positions and a certain amount of wind.

Too big for the smaller garden, but if you have enough space, do try and work this tree in, as it won’t get too huge and will be large enough to be a commanding feature in the outdoor room. The undersides of the leaves are a lovely silvery colour which contrasts beautifully with the deep red topside.

This silver colour is a trait of one of its parents, Acer saccarinum (Silver Maple), a beauty in its own right with more of a golden autumn colour.

We have had such an amazing summer and early autumn the colour is quite late this year with many trees holding onto their green garments right into October.

In Fota Arboretum last week I was looking at some oak trees which were so green that, with the blue sky behind them, you could have thought it was mid-summer.

When the leaves do turn, I wonder whether nature will remain calm and wind-free, and let us enjoy the annual display for more that a few days. or will she come in with a roar to announce the summer’s true end.

Whatever happens this autumn — do open your eyes to what is all about. It need not be the most sought-after specimen — like Acer or Liquidambar that excites you.

It could be the common ash trees and hawthorns in the hedgerow that convert you becoming a lover of this time of year — just like me

'Bare Root' planting explained 

When the leaves have fallen and the frosts and cold temperatures are truly here, then this is when the nurserymen get to work and lift trees and saplings out of the fields to be sold as ‘bare root’ plants.

These trees and plants will only be available during the window from November to February as the plants can only be lifted during this dormant period, when they are asleep and can repair any root damage caused during the transfer.

Get ready for any winter planting by preparing the area now. If you are intent on planting a hedge or trees, then dig well and incorporate some good quality compost, either homemade or from the garden centre. Farmyard manure is a great addition to the soil but do please ensure that it is well rotten and weedfree or you could be importing serious problems.

Make sure to remove all weed growth from the area as these weeds and grasses will compete with the new hedge for water in its first few years and lead to the hedge establishing very slowly, if at all. Many new plants are starved of water because of weeds growing on the surface and like any plant which gets no water, they will simply die off.


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