Goodbye summer, hello fall

As summer wanes and fall begins, I feel much as I did when I had my two granddaughters, ages 5 and 3, on an escalator. One stepped forward and I followed, turning back to reach my hand out to the other. She hesitated and then was resistant to stepping forward. There I was in the middle, trying to decide which way to move. Summer is still in my heart, but fall's signs challenge me to move forward.

As summer ends, our valley's palette turns green again as blossoms fade and leaves begin to decline. Fall introduces colors of peach, yellow, orange and russet purple. A native tree that is a show-stopper but underutilized compared to Japanese maples and ornamental fruit trees is the sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum), with four-season interest. In fall, the leaves (with a sour taste, hence its name) of the sourwood turn from yellow, to red and then to maroon. In summer, white fragrant flowers in 4- to 10-inch panicles similar to the lily-of-the-valley bloom for about a month. In winter, gray and later brown seed capsules persist. As it ages, its bark becomes a blocky grid, adding more interest to the garden. In spring its leaves are an iridescent green that are lustrous in maturity.

Each sourwood has its own shape, usually two straight lean trunks that form a pyramidal shape. However, its branches and arms turn downward so it looks very much like a cascading waterfall. Its stems begin as an olive green and then turn rich red. It is a slow grower, about a foot a year, and matures to about 25 feet or more.

Sourwoods are closely related to rhododendrons and azaleas and thrive under the same conditions: well-drained acid soil and either full sun or partial shade, with some supplemental summer watering. Its worst enemy is dry shade or high vehicular traffic that pollutes the air. It's relatively pest and disease free. Unlike the rhododendrons, though, it does not like to be moved.

The sourwood is a beauty and certainly rivals the dogwoods and maples. Plant it where you can see it, perhaps near the front door or at a spot where you can view it from the front window. It is a standout against a dark background of evergreens.

Three shrubs that add punch in the fall garden are the beautyberry, the pieris japonica and the honeybush. Beautyberry (Callicarpa bodinieri) has pea-sized clustered berries in the fall and winter that look absolutely fake. Lilac berries! No kidding.

A photograph rarely does the berries justice. During nine months of the year, the 4- to 8-foot shrub looks fairly ordinary with its arching branches and its slightly gawky look. But in September the berries begin to color - pink, orange and then amethyst. During the winter wildlife might eat the berries; if not, they dehydrate and drop. 'Profusion' (named because of its lush number of berries) does particularly well in the Pacific Northwest. To keep berries fruiting, prune about one-third of the old growth every spring. (Note, please, that beautyberries are not the same as beauty bush (Kolkwitzia amabilis.)

The pieris japonica is almost a miniature of the sourwood tree, with lily-of-the-valley blossoms; however, it doesn't have quite the four-season display of the sourwood. It's a stalwart evergreen with glossy dark leaves that turn coppery, peach or red, depending on the variety. They thrive with almost no care in well-drained acid soil in half sun conditions. I have 'Valley Rose,' which is a pink blooming variety.

Honeybush (Melianthus major) does not add to the brilliant orange-red palette of fall but does turn slightly red in mild winters. Honeybushes shine with a dusty blue, a color I love in some of the ornamental grasses. It is fern-like with 18-inch serrated leaf foliage and can reach 8 feet tall and wide. It can become too thick and can be cut back hard in late winter. This native plant from South Africa, which needs little water, has spikes of reddish brown in late winter or early spring. Both Dan Hinkley (of the former Heronswood) and Ciscoe Morris have highlighted honeybush in their separate slide presentations for its unsurpassed textural qualities.

Fall whispers to us that it's coming - cooler temperatures and shorter days. Chlorophyll in plants slows to a stop. Throughout the cool, crisp days, anthocyanin pigments that we think of as fall colors, shine. Fall means ornamental kale, mums and pumpkins. It also can mean blueberry bushes, which feed us in August, turning crimson. Soups comfort us. The whisper gets louder!

By the way, remember that elevator with two granddaughters - one going down and one stalled? Well, I turned and tried to go up the escalator and fell when I leaned over to retrieve my glasses that fell off my head. Angels do appear! One took my granddaughter's hand and helped her on the escalator. Meanwhile, I picked up my lost pride and continued to my other waiting granddaughter.

Bev Hoffman's Sequim Gazette column appears the first Wednesday of each month. She can be reached via e-mail at

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