The colours of late autumn

Persimmons – golden orbs against a clear sky in late autumn. Being an old fashioned, astringent variety, we have to wait until they are very ripe before picking them

Here we are, 23 days off the shortest day of the year and in the late autumn phase. The daytime temperature has dropped to the mid teens celsius and we even had a light frost this week. But we are lucky here that our light levels during the day don’t drop much. It just gets dark earlier.

The first of the sun’s rays hitting the Court Garden this week

We never get that grey, leaden look of spent perennials and patches of dark green that characterise many gardens in colder climates, let alone the blanket of white snow many northern countries experience. But neither are we tropical. I have busted out my thermals already. In self-defence, we do not retire indoors as the temperature drops and we are out and about in the garden in all but the worst weather.

Luculia gratissima ‘Early Dawn’ in sugar pink
Luculia pinceana ‘Fragrant Pearl’ with its white rounded heads
Luculia pinceana ‘Fragrant Cloud’

The luculias are in flower. Rangy and frost tender these plants may be, the scent is divine and the flower heads are large and attractive balls of colour well into winter. My favourite is the almond pink of ‘Fragrant Cloud’. Unfortunately, they don’t hold well when picked but we keep our house at a warm temperature in winter that is not conducive to any garden flowers holding well indoors.

The most enormous of hydrangeas and evergreen, too

Also rangy and frost tender, the enormous, evergreen tree hydrangea is in full bloom. Walking past it on sunny days, the hum of honey bees is not quite deafening but certainly on track in that direction. As the plant is about 5 metres tall and currently sporting so many blooms on the sunny side that the foliage is barely visible, it can accommodate a whole lot of honey bees at a time when other food sources are less abundant. Last I heard, this unusual Chinese hydrangea is thought to be a member of the aspera group.

Nearby, still in the woodland area we call the Avenue Garden, I like this seasonal composition with the red form of Cordyline australis x banksii, the hanging chalices of the tree dahlia D. imperialis (another rangy, frost tender plant), the cerise of the enormous bougainvillea, blue flowered plectranthus and Luculia ‘Fragrant Cloud’ on the right.

Ammi majus

Out in the rather wilder margins of Mark’s vegetable garden (which we never open to public view because while he is a productive gardener, he is also very messy in this area), the Ammi majus flowers on. I liked the mix of wildflower, the cloche and the communion of our two new ladders which Lloyd was using in tandem at the time.

In still wilder margins, this scene was the coming together of a United Nations of self-seeded plants – the nikau palms from NZ, Montanoa bipinnatifida otherwise known as the Mexican tree daisy,and the yellow mahonia which may or may not be Mahonia japonica from Japan.

Vireya rhododendron macgregoriae, this plant defying the odds and still going strong after 64 years

Back in the more cultivated areas of the garden, many vireya rhododendrons are blooming. These are the subtropical rhododendrons – so frost tender and generally pretty sensitive – and tend not to be longlived. Their flowering is triggered by day length, not temperature, so they bloom intermittently but autumn and spring are the main seasons. We have some dead specimens we are removing now and Mark is doing a cuttings round to propagate an ongoing supply. But this specimen, this one is defying that tendency to whiff off and die. It is the very plant that Felix collected from the highlands of New Guinea in 1957 and the start of his breeding programme – R. macgregoriae.

Sasanqua camellia ‘Elfin Rose’ and Nerine bowdenii

Autumn is sasanqua camellia season, now my favourite group of camellias. For years the NZ sasanqua market was completely dominated by consumer demand for white sasanquas – it may still be the case but I am out of touch with commercial production these days. We have plenty of different white sasanqua varieties in the garden but they do not spark joy for me in the way the coloured options do. This one is pretty ‘Elfin Rose’, seen here with the last nerines of the season, N. bowdenii at its feet.

It is not just flowers giving colour. While autumn colour is patchy and extended over a long period of time because we move so gradually from late summer to autumn to winter, the maples and some of the prunus give a pretty display.

Magnolia campbellii opening blooms in late May

Finally, in a sign of how our seasons lack the sharp demarcations of colder climates, the first magnolias are already opening. I follow a Facebook page for magnolia enthusiasts that is heavily dominated by mad keen magnoliaphiles from northern Europe. They are still posting photos of late season blooms opening on their spring magnolias. Meanwhile, as far away as we can get across the world, the Magnolia campbellii in the Anglican churchyard of my local town of Waitara is already open with a score or more blooms.

First flowers on ‘Fairy Magnolia White’ in late May

Here, we are looking at the first flowers open already on ‘Fairy Magnolia White’, the first of the michelias of the new season to bloom. As we are in the last gasps of autumn, these early magnolias are a reminder that spring is not far away.

12 thoughts on “The colours of late autumn

  1. elainebolitho

    Thank you for such an interesting and colourful autumn post Abbie.

    Blessings

    Elaine E Bolitho

    56 Box Hill, Wellington 6035

    Home Phone (04) 479-5352

  2. Tim Dutton

    Lovely photos and the Court Garden is looking impressive.
    It never ceases to amaze me how the seasons blur together with autumn, winter and spring all contriving to overlap in our part of the world and some summer blooms still appearing (quite a few rose flowers around the garden at the moment). Our climate is not quite as benign as yours, but we do have our Nerine bowdenii in flower at the moment too. We never planted these, they appeared as if by magic about 6 years ago and have flowered every May and into June ever since. Presumably seed brought in by birds: we’ve had a surprising number of flowering bulbs appear that way over the years. I need to divide the clump as it looks a bit congested.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I was just following a debate on Twitter about people referring to seasons rather than months being confusing and I wanted to shout NO! Because as a gardener, I let the plants tell me what season it is. And the notion that the year is divided into four equal seasons is both arbitrary and incorrect for most of the world, when you think about it. I would say we have very long autumns and springs, very short winters and comparatively short summers. Other climates have long winters and short sharp springs and autumns! It is very confusing. Let alone factoring in that we define our seasons by months whereas it is, I just discovered, more common for northern countries to define the seasons by equinoxes and solstices rather than the first day of the month.

      1. Tim Dutton

        Totally agree about our very long autumns and springs and shorter winters and summers. Autumn starts for us when our Hamamelis change colour in April and finishes when the last golden leaves fall from the poplars in late July or early August. Meanwhile the first spring Hyacinth in a pot by the house is thrusting it’s flower bud up through the soil today!

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        My theory is that winter is about seven weeks here – from the winter solstice to the first half of August and even then we have magnolias and early narcissi in bloom.

  3. tonytomeo

    Vireyas were something that some of our clients wanted us to grow, but we never did. There were only a few in the collection. They lived in a greenhouse rather than get planted out in the arboretum. They would have been too much work for us, and incompatible with the other crops.

  4. Paddy Tobin

    A beautiful selection of plants, Abbie, and I really enjoyed seeing them.

    In Ireland, we are of the long springs and autumn, mild winters and summers. I am amazed at the seasons I see from a friend in Finland where winter suddenly stops followed by spring one day and summer the next – though summer does last for them. They have the long summers and winters and very short and abrupt springs and autumns. Your mention of light is very important and not often recognised – light as much as temperature has a big effect on plant growth.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Thank you, Paddy. I was wondering how you were getting on. Have you been vaccinated? Are you still in your own tight lockdown or are you able to ease off now?

      1. Paddy Tobin

        Many thanks for your concern. I’ve had one jab and will have a second around the end of July it seems. However, we continue to live carefully and now question ourselves if we are simply using the excuse of a pandemic to live a lifestyle that we actually enjoy very much – while complaining about it at the same time!

      2. Abbie Jury Post author

        I can relate! We didn’t mind lockdown but it only lasted 6 weeks here. It is very different for those who have been in that state for anything up to fifteen months now. A London friend noted how challenging it was getting used to being in crowds of people again.

      3. Paddy Tobin

        In normal times we would avoid crowds like the plague (how appropriate a phrase!) and that will hardly change.

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