Matthew PopplewellNature’s leaf rainbow

Having returned from a whirlwind tour of the UK, few places could have left a more lasting impression than the wondrous colourful transition of the leaves and progression into a deep winter’s sleep than that of the trees at Westonbirt Arboretum, on the west coast of England.Westonbirt, The National Arboretum, is based in Gloucestershire and located three miles from the pretty town of Tetbury in the heart of the Coltswolds.

Westonbirt Arboretum Plaque

Westonbirt Arboretum Plaque

Westonbirt is set within an historic, picturesque landscape of a Victorian style and home to a internationally valued tree and shrub collection with some 15,000 trees (2,500 different species) coming from Great Britain and other far reaches of the globe such as China, North America, Japan, Chile and many other temperate climates.

Within the gardens are some 30 kilometres of accessible paths and five national collections presented as themes. Adults and children don their gumboots and head out into the mud to become young adventurers and to connect with trees through guided walks or self-led trails.

Westonbirt attracts over 340,000 visits per year and is known worldwide for its spectacular autumn colour and if you need an excuse to visit a second time then apparently spring greets you with a deluge of colour from the rhododendron, azalea and magnolia displays. Weather conditions right up to early autumn can influence the time and rate of leaf colouring and perhaps due to the drier end to a wet summer, the leaves were holding a little longer than usual. As timing of your visit in such a small sector of time through autumn is so important you can never quite guess which trees will provide the year’s treat.

Over 2,000 specimens of maples of which they are over 300 Japanese maple cultivars

Over 2,000 specimens of maples of which they are over 300 Japanese maple cultivars

The grounds are dominated with over 2,000 specimens of maples of which they are over 300 Japanese maple cultivars, it is no great surprise that the British associate autumn with this group of plants. Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) are of course well known for their vibrant autumn colour and being relatively small plants, they are good for any small garden or in pots. A key to growing them in pots is to provide a slightly acidic pH to the soil and not allow the early season sun to burn the leaves of the more sensitive small leaf varieties.

Some of the first trees to start to show their autumn colour are the big full moon maples (Acer japonicum). This is often joined by another early starter being the Chinese spindle (Euonymus oxyphyllus). The spindle is a much more delicate plant and produces pink coloured leaves in autumn.

Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica)

Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica)

Another eye catching example of the gem’s in the arboretum was the Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica). This rare plant originates from northern Iran and north east Turkey and was introduced in 1879. There are over 50 specimens growing throughout the arboretum.

The hickories are another group of big trees that produce stunning autumn displays – this time with a pure yellow foliage and found them to be a delightful contrast to the vibrant reds.

After a good hour of sticky walking through the thick mud and with eyes sore from the chorus of colours that trickled down from the sky in the light autumn breeze and land on your very nose, you may be forgiven for relaxing one sense and letting the nose take over. For if visuals weren’t enough then your sense of smell takes over to finish you off.

Some of the trees produce rich aromas at this time of year and the very best for this is the katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) from Japan and China. Its rich autumn colours are complemented by a smell described as caramel with a hint of candyfloss.

Colours of Autumn

Colours of Autumn

The journey continued as I climbed away from the so-called Silk Wood only to be met with another common and highly colourful British hedging favourite at “Beech Bank” with a wilder landscape of beech, oak, field maple and dogwood. The beech trees tend to mange to hold on for dear life and like a naughty child full of sugar at bedtime, they tend to be the last to drop off. They hold a beautiful show of colour right through autumn before producing a crisp fall of leaves.

Further on and another section with the rain returning and the gumboots seemly getting shorter and shorter in the developing swamp I find  interesting species including deciduous conifers, swamp cypress and larch. The former’s leaves turn a strong tawny, orange shade.

Although never a fan of the cold, this experience helped me remind myself of its values to nature and how it can often bring out the very best of our plant’s qualities. Just 11 months to wait again….

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