GARDENING

Fall color for Florida


Published: Saturday, November 23, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 20, 2013 at 5:41 p.m.

It is not something that will bring tourists to the state as it does in New England, but for those who would like some, it is possible to have a little fall color in the Florida landscape.

Normally, when focusing on landscapes, it is my purpose to set high expectations with great optimism. However, there are a few caveats when it comes to fall color in a state as far south as Florida, and tempered enthusiasm will probably provide less chance for disappointment.

Some years the color will be great; other years it will be almost non-existent. Perhaps the best approach is not to expect too much in the way of color, and to rejoice in those years when everything pans out. After all, there are many reasons to select particular plants, and color is only one reason.

One of the first things you will find about color in Florida is that it comes late in the season, sometimes not occurring until early winter. Another factor in Florida is that heavy rain will accelerate leaf drop. Next, not unique to Florida, weather plays a significant part in the extent of coloring one might expect.

Finally, fall colors pass quickly, and often only a couple days of showy foliage occur, or some years hardly any at all. If you have plants that give fall color, make it your purpose to observe it and enjoy it while it lasts.

The process of coloration in leaves begins in late summer, when, in preparation for growth next spring, the cell walls that connect the leaf to the stem begin to wall off for separation. Leaves respond to day length, and as the days grow shorter, the job of manufacturing food comes to an end.

Xanthophylls (yellow pigments), carotenoids (orange pigments) and anthocyanins (purple and red pigments), are normally masked in the leaf by chlorophyll — green pigments that capture light energy. As the leaf stem is walled away from moving sugars into the root system, the chlorophyll fades in sunlight, much like construction paper fades over time in light, eventually revealing the yellows, oranges, purples and reds we enjoy as fall color.

No doubt trees offer the greatest opportunity for fall color impact, and those in the maple family have a sound record of delivering fall color. Red maples perform well in Florida and tolerate a variety of soil conditions including wet soils. They become a large tree potentially growing to 80 feet high and 35 feet wide, so space for growth is an important consideration. Expect reds and oranges for fall color. Another consideration in the maple family is the Florida maple, a tree slightly smaller than the red maple, growing to 60 feet high and 25 feet wide. These have colors more in the yellow color scheme. A few of the oaks offer colorful displays in certain years, and chief among these is the Shumard oak, another tree that needs room, potentially reaching 80 feet tall and 50 feet wide.

These tend to be red during early winter. Another oak consideration is the Nuttall oak, a tree we have trialed at the Marion County Extension office with good results. This tree becomes large in similar proportions to the Shumard, and offers fall colors in the yellow spectrum.

There are a few medium-sized trees/shrubs that offer potential for fall color, including some of the crape myrtle varieties. I have seen the Natchez cultivar exhibit brilliant red colors during some years, depending on weather conditions. Japanese barberry is another shrub that grows as high as 10 feet. It shows colors in shades of red during the fall.

Over the past few summers, UF/IFAS Extension in Marion County has experimented with a dwarf variety of Nandina. The common varieties, nandina domestica, are considered invasive, so aren't recommended. But these dwarf varieties do not have the spreading nature of the larger cultivar. Blush pink nandina is light green during the summer growing season, but its leaves turn pink to red during late fall. Flirt has more of a maroon color as fall progresses.

Fall color can be had in Florida landscapes. One simply needs to plan plantings accordingly, keep an eye out for the short window offered, then enjoy it while it lasts.

David Holmes is Marion County extension director. Contact him at david.holmes@marioncountyfl.org.

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