November 2020: Hydrangea petiolaris and Stewartia pseudocamelia
When I think of November, for me it is the month of fireworks – in this case the glories of autumn colour. One by one, plants light up in shades of yellow, tan, orange and red to then fade in a pool of butter or fire. Although many herbaceous plants contribute, the real stars of the show are woody. So, what should I choose when there are so many stunners? Well, I am going to cheat again and have two choices, one early and yellow and the other later and red. How good autumn colour is tends to vary season to season, so I have chosen two which I find particularly reliable.
First is Hydrangea petiolaris, the commonest climbing hydrangea. This is a plant which is a great self-clinger to a north wall, or in my case an old birch tree which, over the last nearly forty years, it has been slowly climbing. It flowers in mid-summer with typical lacecap flowers, but its real glory is in the autumn when it turns a rich, buttery yellow before falling. Yellows tend to be the most reliable of autumn colours and are fantastic for showing off the deeper reds and oranges. In fact, my hydrangea used to be a great foil for an Acer ‘Ozakasuki’ which goes a rich orange and was planted in front of it. Sadly, that is no longer there, but I have planted a Crataegus phaenopyrum in a similar spot and I hope this will also form a suitable contrast with both its autumn colour and its berries. As I only planted it this spring, it has yet to perform and I guess that is one of the key requirements when thinking of autumn colour and perhaps gardening in general – you need patience. Plants often need some maturity to give of their best.
So, what is my later red plant? Well, there are a lot to chose from, but I’m going for Stewartia pseudocamelia. This is partly because it is a really reliable colourer and lights up slowly over a number of weeks giving a long time of interest, and partly because it has fantastic peeling bark which is particularly attractive at this time of year. It also flowers in late June/July with single white flowers about 2 ins across with a big boss of yellow stamens in the middle. Another reason I particularly like this plant is its siting. You can see from the picture that it is outside my lounge window and it brightens up the dullest and dreariest of autumn days. It is described as a small tree, but my plant is around 20 ft high, although it was planted about 35 years ago. I like it so much that in the last few years I’ve planted three more species of Stewartia. These are not yet performing as well as my old plant and, given my advancing years, I may never see them at full size. But perhaps that’s the other quality we gardeners need if we hanker after autumn colour – optimism!