McCreary: Plan now for dazzling fall colors

It seems a little backwards to talk about fall color before spring arrives, but February is bare-root season and many gardeners will be purchasing trees and shrubs in hopes of filling the garden with late-season color.

Because many of us find inspiration in magazines, a gentle reminder is in order: Try not to be swept away by photos in slick, nationally circulated magazines featuring New England and other East coast landscapes. As tantalizing as they may be, most plants pictured belong east of the Rockies.

Focus instead on equally attractive and colorful species that thrive in Northern California. Here are 10 alternatives to brightly colored species frequently featured in prominent gardening magazines.

If you're drawn to the graceful outlines of weeping European birch (Betula) or southern native yellowwood (Cladrastis lutea), keep in mind that, to thrive, these species should be grown in humid climates with year-round rainfall.

Opt instead for a more rugged tree.

Thanks to the survival of the ancient ginkgo from ages long past, we have a beautiful, more suitable choice that displays the same radiance.

In autumn, the entire ginkgo canopy becomes enveloped in glowing gold. Leaves magically drop simultaneously, covering the ground beneath with a soft carpet. The only drawback occurs when we plant the female of the species whose fruits become markedly malodorous.

An alternative is the Indian bean tree (Catalpa) that withstands complete summer drought yet develops a similar deep yellow tint in autumn and displays long, lovely panicles of white foxglove-like blossoms in summer.

Brilliant reds

Nothing epitomizes an autumn scene, however, more dramatically than a fiery blaze of scarlet. Eastern species such as maple (Acer), tupelo (Nyssa), and sourwood (Oxydendrum) develop some of the very finest reds, but we can enjoy similar colors in numerous species more adapted to our own climate.

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