Of all the seasons in a Florida gardener’s life, none may be quite so pleasant as autumn. At last a mellowed sun has replaced summer’s white heat. Late afternoon fog rolls in from the Gulf, the scent of wood burning wafts through the crisp evening air, and daylight hours are still sufficient to make gardening before and after work most rewarding. Best of all, the shorter days of fall bring brilliant bursts of colors that bedeck trees, bushes and vines.
The shimmering gold efflorescence of the golden rain tree (Koelreuteria elegans), whose large clusters of bright yellow flowers turn to rosy, papery seedpods, is the first to herald autumn. These papery husks retain their pink-red color for many months.
From the elongated fingerlike branches of the necklace tree (Sophora tormentosa), opalescent pods dangle like strings of pearls. Few berries compare to those of the beauty berry (Callicarpa), with hundreds of amethyst clusters gathered between jade-tinged foliage on long, graceful branches, and those of the umbrella-shaped China berry tree (Melia azedarach), which glows with topaz-like gems. In autumn the gleaming, brightly colored berries of firethorn greatly enhance walls and fences.
Whatever form it takes-tall climber, thick edge, dense bush or graceful tree-studded with bright orange and scarlet berries, Pyracantha is at its best in the fall. This is also the time when the highly invasive Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius) reaches its peak in bountiful clusters of ruby red fruit that will last until the holidays. Bromeliads come in many varieties, but in October, Vriesea spp. bears smooth and shiny apricot berries.
Come fall, the leaves of the Florida maple (Acer saccharin) blush in brilliant shades of red, bronze and copper, while those of sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) turn bright carmine and deep crimson. Annatto (Bixa orellana) is a flashy bush, with large panicles of pink blossoms and clusters of spiny red fruits. Each pod contains tiny seeds coated with annatto, a scarlet pigment used for coloring food or lips, hence the name by which the shrub is best known, lipstick bush.
The floss silk tree (Chorisia speciosa) is considered among the most beautiful trees in the world. This deciduous tropical is also well known for the large spikes protecting the trunk and limbs. Silk floss blooms in early fall in South Florida with abandon. After blooming, its pear-shaped fruits produce a silky floss, which springs out of the seeds.
A knee-high purple haze in the distance may not be an atmospheric event, but the effect created by the wispy purplish flower heads in a dense stand of Gulf muhlygrass, a showy clump-forming grass that can grow to three feet tall. The purplish-red or pink inflorescence is a diffuse, silky panicle, 18 inches long and 10 inches wide, that stands above the wiry leaves. It appears in late summer and blooms for six to eight weeks. The ripe seeds that follow give an attractive tan color to the wispy plumes.
The fall is when Muhlenbergia capillaris puts on a real show with flowers that look like a purple cloud from far away, giving a spectacular fall color show. Seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) can be recognized by its fleshy, waxy leaves-an adaptation to the drying effect of salt spray.
Many vines also follow suit. Unassuming for most of the year, the butterfly vine (Stigmaphyllon carcacea) undergoes a spectacular metamorphosis suggestive of its namesake: It begins with a rather nondescript little bud, quickly followed by small gold orchid-like flowers and a host of leathery butterfly-shaped pods. At first bright green, the pods fade to a light bronze, darkening until they reach their final color, a deep, polished mahogany. Another sight to behold is that of the climbing cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis) shimmering with fiery red-orange tubular flowers-attracting nectar-feeding birds, especially sunbirds-leaping out like hundreds of tiny flames.
And fall would not be fall without the cheerfully ruffled mums (Chrysanthemums carinatum). With names like autumn glory and golden gem, their bright yellow, deep russet, chocolate brown, and burnished orange hues illuminate the autumnal garden with daisy-like flowers in single and double blooms.
PLANT IT WELL
Trees: Field-grown trees should have a compact root system. The leaves should be free of insects and diseases. If the tree is dormant, scratch the bark to determine if the growth layer is green and moist.
Shrubs: Container-grown specimens offer the best root protection and the best transplant success since they retain their natural soil.
Vines: The best time to plant vines is from March to October. Determine the sun exposure needed. Improve soil by mixing one-third peat moss with one-third dehydrated cow manure and one-third natural, existing soil. Plant vines three to four feet apart.
Moisture: regardless of type and size, daily watering is essential. Once the plant takes hold and is established, water when needed.