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The Dry Garden: Those fall colors are dazzling, but ...

December 17, 2010 |  8:00 am

EG-liquidambar

It takes a hard heart not to swoon when the liquidambars that line so many streets in greater Los Angeles conduct their flaming descent into dormancy. As if entire city blocks drawn together in a season finale weren't an eloquent enough elegy for a calendar year, the scarlet confetti of crape myrtle trees and the golden last gasp of ginkgos join the orchestra in a way that makes November and December the Southern Californian equivalent of fall back East.

There is, of course, a "but" coming, and it's a big one. We're not back East. Although the yearly curtain call of these exotic trees is undeniably glorious, they have a timing problem. It's barely fall. Winter solstice is just four days away. How bothered you are by this lag depends on how you feel about leaf blowers working on Christmas Day.

EG-persimmonShould we cut liquidambars down? My vote is no. The old stands are mighty symbols of our past. Should we plant more of them? Not nearly as often as previous generations did. It's time to admit that attempting to replicate the East in California is like going to Hawaii for the cheese.

When using exotics for flashes of fall color in the landscape, a more elegant approach might be to see these trees as punctuation. A well-placed pomegranate or persimmon, right, flames gloriously at the end of the year without dominating the landscape or constituting a denial of place. It becomes a beautiful focal point and puts fruit on the holiday table.

The desire for wall-to-wall fall is understandable to anyone who comes from the East or who has even visited, but it's still wrong in California. Although the leaves of our native maples and grapes muster a show that can pass as Eastern autumnal brio, as a rule California native plants follow a different cycle. Their leaves are different, and so are their dormancy cycles. They're adapted to a climate in which the dormant season isn't winter, but summer.

EG-fall-color-streetLike the Middle East, parts of Australia, Chile and South Africa, we have what is called a Mediterranean climate. The growing season here is late fall and winter, when receding heat and occasional winter rains awaken plants from summer dormancy. The Missouri Botanical Garden's president emeritus, Peter Raven, likes to use the example of the buckeye, or horse chestnut, which across most of the country drops its leaves in autumn but here in California sheds its foliage in summer.

As our flora awaken from dormancy in fall and winter, the opposite is happening back East. Shortening days and sharply dropping temperatures prompt changes in EG-fall-color-crape-myrtledeciduous trees that stop the production of chlorophyll in their leaves. As that diminishes, other pigments causing the yellow and red undertones are briefly revealed before the plants shed their canopies and slip into a winter sleep.

The upshot for those who still pine for Eastern reds in California: If you look, you are likely to find it in new growth. New-season leaves of California natives such as manzanita are often red-rimmed. The color succession caused by pigment production cycles in leaves doesn't just happen when leaves die, but also when they form. This red-first process is not unique to natives. Many gardeners will have noticed how new rose bush leaves start life a deep burgundy. The difference in California is that they appear in winter.

Winter solstice arrives next week, after which our short days will begin to lengthen and, we hope, rain will be on its way in January and February. So think not of Eastern colors. We're in the West, and spring is coming.

-- Emily Green

Green's column on sustainable gardening in the West appears here on Fridays.

Upper photo: Liquidambar leaf detail. Credit: Los Angeles Times

Second photo: Fuyu persimmon tree. Credit: Saxon Holt

Third photo: Street scene. Credit: Emily Green

Lower photo: Crape myrtle detail. Credit: Emily Green

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