Foliage takes centre stage over flowers in autumn with trees putting on a glorious show. Here are 10 native and non-native trees that I believe should take a leading role in your garden…
1. Beech (Fagus syl. 'Asplenifolia')
This tree’s dense canopy is a haven for wildlife (and one of the best trees to find mushrooms underneath), with leaves a must for mulching. Leaves turn from lime green to yellow, and then copper red in autumn. The ‘Asplenifolia’ is a particularly fine specimen and has all the merits of the native species, with delicate dissected leaves that shimmer in the breeze.
Use: Not many gardens have room for a fully-fledged beech as they can reach around 40m; so hedging is a great bet. Pruning beech tricks the plant into thinking it’s a juvenile so it retains its orange-brown leaves for longer.
2. Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica)
Stunning autumn colour, with rich purple leaves in spring turning to orange-red in autumn - sometimes with a purple fringe. As well as red flowers in late winter, it also has lovely grey bark, which flakes to reveal pinky-yellow, immature bark beneath. The best autumn colour develops on acid soils but it will still fair well on chalk.
Use: Growing to around 6m high, it’s excellent for small gardens and widely available as single or multi-stem trees.
3. Wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis)
Rarely planted and rarely seen, this tree’s sweeping branches, scaly bark and lobed leaves, like a maple, offers a fabulous orange-russet display in autumn. It thrives in this country, even on chalk soils, and can reach 10-15m high. Scented white flowers form in spring and the edible fruits, called chequers, were once picked like dates and used in beer.
Use: Fast growing and unfussy, it’s a great all-rounder.
4. Maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba)
Stunning fan-shaped leaves, and, as the name denotes, the ‘Autumn Gold’ turns a brilliant, amber colour as the seasons change. Keeps its colour over a long period.
Use: A good choice for large gardens, growing to more than 12m high.
5. Wild Cherry (Prunus avium)
The pretty white blossom and bright red fruits of this ancestor of the cultivated cherry have been adding a splash of colour to Britain’s hedgerows for hundreds of years – but it also offers unforgettable colour in autumn.
Use: Preferring alkaline soils, it’s a must-have for our Cambridge gardens and can reach 30m.
6. Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)
The black gum tree is a North American native with oval leaves and elegant habit. Leaves turn from fiery purple to red early in the season and give a truly spectacular display. Grows up to 12m.
Use: Native to swampland, these trees needs fertile soil but can tolerate waterlogged sites. A good choice for pond or lake margins, but not one for chalk soils.
7. Field Maple (Acer campestre)
This long-lived UK native has shiny green leaves that fade to rich gold. Foliage and flowers are attractive to aphids and their predators, including the sycamore moth. There are many cultivars with different and dramatic characteristics: I love A.c. ‘Red Shine’.
Use: Its compact habit makes it a good choice for smaller urban gardens, especially given its tolerance to pollution. As with all maples, the sap can be used to make maple syrup!
8. Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)
Small but perfectly formed, native spindles have glowing orange/red foliage and lipstick red seed heads in autumn, with ‘Red Cascade’ being a particularly fine example. The seeds split open around now to reveal coral coloured fruits, which hang in clusters. The wood was once used to make ‘spindles’ for wool making (hence the name) as well as knitting needles.
Use: Tolerates most soils, including thin chalk.
9. Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
I couldn’t leave this spectacular tree out of my list – even though it doesn't do so well in Cambridge soils! The five-pointed leaves offer gloriously fiery colours and are a season highlight in richer acidic soils. In fact everything about this tree sounds delicious: its spiky fruit ‘capsules’ are known by many names including ‘gumballs’ and ‘goblin bombs’.
Use: Although it can reach 25m, Liquidambar responds well to pruning – it can even be trained – so can be kept in check in medium-sized gardens.
10. Alder buckthorn (Frangula alnus)
Bright, yellow-red autumn colour and attractive fruits, which ripen from red to purple-black. The leaves are a favourite with Brimstone butterfly caterpillars.
Use: At 5m, it is a good choice for small gardens and works well as part of a wildlife hedge.