Stephen RyanEye candy for autumn

One of the multitude of good things about gardening a cool to cold climate like the one I live in is the season change that it creates and for me one of the greatest seasons is the autumn. The weather is usually stable and calm so that it is by far the best time to be out in the garden (mosquitoes are usually less as well!). The days are getting shorter and the sun is at a lower level in the sky making for interesting light changes in the garden and of course deciduous trees and shrubs are turning brilliant colours to warm the cockles before the winter cold sets in and the starker beauty of winter prevails.

Rhus pulvinata 'Autumn Lace Group'

Rhus pulvinata ‘Autumn Lace Group’

In this area plants of all sorts including many that are all but impossible in lower and warmer places are turning stunning shades from brilliant yellow through apricots and oranges to fire engine reds and deepest burgundies. I just wander about taking it all in and ignoring any jobs I should be doing in the garden. I have to say however in my defence that the fact that things are slowing down as the cold sets in means that the pressure is off. No madly flourishing weeds to deal with and the hoses have all been put away.

The other charm of autumn for me is that it is so unpredictable. Some years a tree with turn bright red and last for weeks and the very next year it will hardly turn at all and drop over night. This definitely adds to the excitement as the season progresses.

Rhus pulvinata 'Autumn Lace Group'

Rhus pulvinata ‘Autumn Lace Group’

I am always on the look out for shrubs and other small plants that bring the autumn bounty down to eye level and below as so many of the iconic plants for this season tend to be trees. Don’t get me wrong, as I love the sun filtering through a Japanese maple just as much as the next person but I want to drown in it and need it all around me.

So this article is about the smaller plants that I can and do grow in my garden for autumn colour and at this point I need to say how sorry I am for all of you who can’t grow them, you’ll just have to console yourselves with the fact that you can probably grow a good Frangipani which is obviously beyond me.

The topic is to large for an article like this so I have decided to select just a few off beat examples that I find great in my garden and may well work in frost free areas as well (probably not for you lot in the tropics however).

A plant that is stunning in my garden and yet hard to sell to the general public is Rhus pulvinata ‘Autumn Lace Group’ and this is for two reasons. Keen gardeners tend to shy clear of the Rhuses due to the fact that one, Rhus succedanea is well known as a plant that can cause serious rashes and for some people can be life threatening. This plant is now known as appropriately as Toxicodendron succedaneum and our plant isn’t allergenic but the name still scares people. Secondly this plant suckers which for me is a bonus but most people are scared of anything that doesn’t stay where you put it.

Ceratostigma griffithii

Ceratostigma griffithii

Although this plant can grow to a large shrub or even small tree I cut it to ground level each year and it rarely grows more than 1.5metres tall and it lightly suckers throughout my perennial border tying it together with fluffy green leaves all summer that turn brilliant reds each autumn.

A completely different kettle of fish is the Chinese Plumbago Ceratostigma griffithii which is a small shrub rarely up to a metre that should also be pruned to almost nothing every winter. It has intense deep blue flowers from mid summer till dormancy and its leaves go bright red with a smattering of flowers usually present, which is a quite arresting site.


Taller again is the Cork Winged Spindle berry Euonymus alatus which can get to about 2 metres. Its main claim to fame is its truly remarkable hot pink autumn foliage, however it has a second string to its bow in the winter when its bare stems stand out with amazing wings of corky bark. The floral artistes amongst you will immediately see the potential of these. All of these plants like a friable soil and a sunny well-drained site and at least in my climate are almost indestructible.

Euonymus alatus hot pink autumn foliage

Euonymus alatus hot pink autumn foliage

For those of you that want more go and do your own research on the following that I haven’t included due to space. Fothergilla, Callicarpa, Stephanandra, Enkianthus and dwarf forms of the afore-mentioned Japanese maples.

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Stephen Ryan

About Stephen Ryan

Stephen Ryan grew up and still lives at Mt. Macedon in Victoria where he has run his nursery Dicksonia Rare Plants since 1980. He was for 3 years host of Gardening Australia on ABC TV and is a regular on Melbourne’s 3CR. Sunday garden program. He has written 4 books and innumerable articles for magazines both in Australia and abroad and is also a sought-after speaker at garden clubs.

5 thoughts on “Eye candy for autumn

  1. Hello Stephen
    Does the Rhus pulvinata plant that you featured spread by suckers? It looks a lot like one that I grew in the Clare Valley called Rhus typhina ‘Laciniata’ and this one spread. Mind you I loved it and the autumn colour is superb. Tough as old boots also.
    It is so good to see these plants that aren’t commonly grown featuring. They are too good to be allowed to die out in Australia. I have also grown Ceratostigma griffithii which was just as hardy, tho tried the Euonymus alatus, solely for its autumn colour, but it failed to thrive so I gave up on it. But then South Australia and the Clare Valley are pretty tough spots to be trying some of these plants.
    But do keep the articles up on these wonderful plants – I alone love to read about them.

  2. Rhus pulvinata ‘Autumn Lace Group’ is the same plant that was once called Rhus typhina and yes it suckers all over the place and adds much to my enjoyment of the plant.

  3. Beautiful images and I have Autumn lace envy, Stephen.

    Do you think I could grow the Chinese plumbago here in SE Qld? I have loads of the garden variety plumbago. Would it require similar conditions?
    Looove anything with blue flowers.

  4. I really think that you could be pushing it up hill to grow chinese plumbago but it will only cost a few dollars to try. You wouldn’t get a coffee with cake for the same price!!!!

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