Winding down, heating up Posted on November 1, 2010

There has hardly been a really dark night for a month. When I part the curtains after midnight the lawn has been painted in tiger stripes by the moon shining through the poplars and the Plough has been diamond-bright above the pond. So little or no cloud-cover – and yet no frost. There has been ground-frost on several mornings, but no cold enough air to crisp and brown the leaves of poplars, even, or ashes. Border flowers may be dying away, but their plants are standing green and unscathed, while roses keep offering limp efforts.

It is the slowest-moving autumn I remember, the fullest in volume of mellowing leaves and the brightest for the roadside hedges, as the maples move from green to a medley of yellows. Since the elms went, field maple has become our principal hedge-row tree, and nothing in the countryside holds more consistent and enduring gold. Norway maple is brighter yellow, and wild cherry glows with a pink-blushing light. The oaks are undecided; all the chromatic possibilities of slow decay still before them.

I always reckon on having the most candle-power in the first week of November – and always from the same trees. Japanese maples are the latest. First to turn are varieties of Acer japonicum: ‘Aconitifolium’ is reliably orange-scarlet, at its best now. A.j.’Vitifolium’ is following it hard in a paler set of colours; yellow, scarlet and pink. Acer koreana has turned an even pillarbox red with no variation, a little matt compared with the best. A. mono is quite different, taller with shiny three-lobed leaves (sometimes five-) rather like starfish, that hesitate between green, scarlet and purple. Osakazuki is celebrated as the best and brightest of all, starting green, now deep maroon, eventually traffic-light red with bulbs that are definitely not energy-saving.

But to me the ultimate performance is from the big bush of tiny fretted leaves called Acer palmatum ‘Seiryu’. It starts the autumn by fading from fresh green to a darker shade that modulates into purple and maroon, even within one tiny segmented leaf. Then current starts to run through it, the filaments heat up, glow and begin to burn. Scarlet brightens to orange, then flecks with gold. Eventually – and there is still two weeks to go, given fair weather – the bush becomes a burning fiery furnace, hottest of all, it seems, as dusk fills the garden.

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