Fall Colors

Despite being in the desert, fall colors can still be found in and around your backyard.

Randy Metcalf/The Explorer

Recently, I overheard someone complaining about the lack of seasonal color in Tucson. Having grown up here, I see color change all around. It is subtle and gentle and you have to pay attention. But if you want bright and showy, here are five trees you can plant right now, to enjoy brilliant color next autumn.

Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa) is lovely year round. It blooms in spring before the leaves come out. The bare wood is festooned with masses of pink, delightfully fragrant flowers. Leathery green leaves contribute dense shade in summer, and turn golden in fall. The round tan pods split open as they dry, revealing an inner pink hue. Pods decorate the branches for months and can be harvested for crafts. With a mature height of 15 to 20 feet, Mexican buckeye can take full, even reflected sun, or part shade, thus you can plant one almost anywhere in your yard. 

Pomegranate (Punicia granatum) is wonderful to plant for many reasons --- glowing golden fall foliage, glorious red flowers in spring, and delicious edible fruit. Plant pomegranate as a dense shrub, helping form a barrier, or prune it into a multi-trunked tree. Native of the Middle East, it grows well in our alkaline desert soil, and still reaches 12 to 20 feet tall. Varieties abound, including dwarf, fruitless, and double-flowered varieties. For our area, select ‘Kino Heritage’ variety. Descendant of the trees Father Kino brought to our area over 300 years ago, this variety is for sale through Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace.

Crape myrtle (Lagerstromia indica) is originally from China, despite its scientific name. China has deserts too, and crape myrtle does well in our desert if grown in a space that gets some afternoon shade. The long shiny leaves are bright green for most of the year, some with a tinge of bronze. In fall, the foliage turns golden, orange, or red, depending on temperatures. Even after the leaves drop, the smooth cream and cinnamon bark plus graceful shape of the plant remain eye-catchingly beautiful. Foliage is not the only reason to plant crape myrtle. The late spring clusters of joyous blooms can be white, pink, or deep red, depending on cultivar. Slow growing, it can be trained into a tree or a tall, vase-shaped shrub.

Western soapberry (Sapinus saponeria) is either a shrub or small tree in the home landscape, reaching around fifteen feet tall. In riparian habitats it can reach thirty feet. Attractive foliage turns brilliant yellow in fall. Round, translucent berries contain saponins, a soap-like substance, and are used to make an insecticidal spray. Western soapberry can be grown in full sun to part shade, and can be planted as an understory shrub. Despite being found in riparian habitats, soapberry is quite drought resistant. Once established, it needs a good soak of the root zone only once a month in summer.

Native cotton (Gossipium thurberi) is fun to grow. My plants reached 15 feet although the books call it a short shrub. The leaves are hand-shaped with five to seven “fingers” that are bright green in summer. Delicate creamy yellow flowers cover the bush at the height of monsoon season, but fall is the time this shrub shines in the landscape. Depending on the temperatures the foliage turns golden, orange, scarlet, or even maroon. 

There are several dozen other low-water trees and shrubs you could plant for fall foliage color, but this selection will get you started until we can revisit this topic later.

(Editors Note: Jacqueline is offering the class “Color My Yard” through OASIS on Wed. Oct. 23 at 1:00 pm (class site near River & Campbell). To register visit www.oasisnet.org/Cities/West/TucsonAZ.aspx or call 322-5627. Jacqueline also works as a garden coach, making house calls to help you with your landscape. More at gardeningwithsoule.com.)

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