Ironwood and Sweetspire – Fall Color Combination



Every week my home landscape reveals something new.  A plant comes in to flower, a deer browses on some newly planted perennials, the first tomatoes are ready to be harvested … for the past couple of weeks, its been fall color changes.  It seems to have been a particularly good autumn of bright golds, oranges, and reds, along with the contrast of evergreen pines and junipers(‘Mini Arcadia’ Juniper is shown above).  Many of my young oaks have shown outstanding color this fall.

I have grown most of  the native plants in my home landscape from seed, two of those, the Red Oak (Quercus rubra) and the Ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana) are shown in the photograph above.  I collected the seed from my parent’s yard, a woodland remnant.  The Ironwoods grow along the creek on steep slopes.  Many times, I will find that a beaver has cut down a large number of them, after having failed at felling a large oak nearby.  This year, the Ironwood in my front yard has turned a brilliant gold, really spectacular to see from my frontroom window backlit by the setting sun.  However, because the fall leaf color on Ironwood can vary from red, to orange, to gold, nurseries often will select for red fall color when deciding which plants to line out in their growing fields, so a golden Ironwood may be more difficult to find at a nursery or garden center.

Ironwoods can be found growing in the wild from Maine to Georgia, west to the Mississippi River.  They grow under the shade of White and Red Oaks, on the edge of a woodland, many times, along a stream.  In that situation, the trees are often reaching for the sun, and can get up thirty feet, or more, in height.  In the open landscape, however, a more rounded and shorter form generally results from this low branched tree, with a height and width of twenty feet, or so.  Another option, as was done by the early twentieth century landscape architect, Beatrix Farrand at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., is to plant the native Ironwood in rows to form a shaded walk, or allee, and limbed up, revealing the smooth bark, for a quite nice effect.



Under, and in front of the Ironwood is Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica), an East Coast native small shrub.  The one I chose to plant is the cultivar ‘Little Henry’ a slightly smaller, at two to three feet tall, version of ‘Henry Garnet’ (three to four feet), both named, according to Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, for Josephine Henry, not for Henry Garnet, who, according to Wikipedia was an “English Jesuit priest executed for his complicity in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.”  In any event, the fall color can be fairly good on the iteas, generally a burgundy red.  It seems, though, that they would be happier with a slightly more acidic soil than that which I am providing for them.  On the upside, the chartreuse/chlorotic summer leaf color is quite nice in an otherwise dark green landscape.  The best fall color is had in sunnier locations, but the plant does quite well in part sun/shade with average soil conditions. Itea, according to Dirr, is hardy from zones 5 to 9.


Itea and Carpinus (Virginia Sweetspire and Ironwood) are low maintenance, attractive native plants for the designed landscape.  Moderate (both are streamside plants in the wild) to good drainage and partial to full sun can be tolerated by both.  The Ironwood pictured above, was started from seed in the fall of 2005, and set out in the garden in 2007 as a one foot tall sapling.  Most of the growth has occurred in the last four years. 

Autumn is a great time of year to visit a botanical garden or arboretum and discover plants that put on a great fall display, take photos, write down their names, and decide if they might work for your own location.

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The Charms of Winged Sumac



I made my first acquaintance with Winged Sumac (Rhus copallina) in the sandy black oak savannas of Kankakee County, Illinois, while helping my friend restore her property.  There, they grow along with Smooth Sumac (R. glabra) and are similar in appearance, with the key difference being the wings along the leaf stem, or rachis, and the Winged Sumac’s shiny leaves, which gives this plant its other common name of Shining Sumac.  Its branching pattern also seems more elegant and less coarse than the Smooth Sumac – a nice added feature in winter, along with the ornamental qualities of the burgundy seed clusters on the female plants.


And while it is naturally found in poor, sandy soils, I’ve used it in some of my designs along building foundations, as shown above, in place of the more standard planting of Dwarf Burning Bush (an invasive plant, btw).   Their requirements are few, but they include at least a half day of sun, and good soil drainage.  In this case, the plants, which can get to eight feet or more in height, as will Dwarf Burning Bush, need to be pruned back a bit in early summer so that they do not block the windows.  These plants are a dwarf cultivar known as ‘Prairie Flame”


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They also look great with other natives as I have used them here with Prairie Dropseed Grass and White Pine which can be seen in the new planting above, with the flowers showing on the Winged Sumac in this July photograph.   The grasses will act as a groundcover, the pines will continue to grow to over 75 feet tall, while the sumac will fill in at eye level.


In a wider shot of the planting shown above, some companions used, include Little Bluestem Grass ‘The Blues’, Geranium ‘Rozanne’, as well as other perennials that can take the reflected heat of this western exposure.  Anchoring the far corner is a native Serviceberry shrub, along with an occasional Japanese Yew evergreen for added winter greenery on this college campus.  In spring, the Servicebery will be covered in small white flowers, followed by tasty blueberry-like fruit.


The bark has an interesting flaking quality, somewhat ornamental, as shown on this mature specimen growing in a suburban front yard.  According to A Natural History of Trees, by renowned naturalist, Donald Culross Peattie, the bark is rich in tannin and was used, historically, to cure the finest grade of leather in the American Appalachians.


Growing without competition, this specimen tree has reached approximately eighteen feet tall, and is just beginning to show its fall color of maroon to crimson red.


In my front yard, along the driveway, I have a mixed planting which includes a young Winged Sumac, along with Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the forground, Blue Baptisia (Baptisia australis) to the right, and Big Bluestem, behind.  As the sumac grows, the composition will get even more enchanting. Do you see my neighbor’s garbage cans?  I can’t either… now.


In my backyard, I have interplanted the sumac with Smooth Blue Aster (Aster laevis) for a pretty fall combination, as the sumac grows, the aster will fill in below – the white fluffy seed heads behind it are Tall Boneset (Eupatorium altissimum), whose flowers smell of French perfume, but can spread like wildfire in open ground!  It is a love hate relationship – mulch can keep the reseeding easily at bay.


As shown below, and quickly realized by anyone who has grown sumac, they sucker – big time.  This can be ok, if room allows, but otherwise, the months of June and July will be spent cutting back any unwanted suckers.  The sumac showing red below is the mother plant, the ones to the left of it, still green, are its clones.  In winter, I’ll decide how many stems I will allow to grow, and cut back the others.  Next summer, I’ll continue to cutback any new sprouts to maintain the size of the colony.  The planting could be kept to one specimen plant if desired.


The sumacs, are truly and American plant, considering there are no European equivalents.  Maybe this is why Frank Lloyd Wright, the father of the Prairie School movement in architecture, used it so often as a motif in his work.

I have never observed any problems with disease or insect damage, however, deer and rabbits are fond of the plants, and can cause damage by browsing.   Birds and other wildlife do not tend to favor the seeds, but will go the the persistent seed clusters late in winter, when other food sources are scarce, according to American Wildlife & Plants by Alexander Martin et. al..  And while cutting back the suckers in summer can be a chore, that is about the only care that they require, and the beauty of the plants is more than worth the effort it takes to keep them in bounds.


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