Sunday, June 15, 2008

Gumballs and mop tops

Sometimes a particular plant will take my fancy for a brief time of the year. The Liquidambar is not a plant I can consider for my garden, as much as I like its autumnal glory – it is simply too big for my garden and I have half an acre – but there are times when I wish I could accommodate it.
Just north of the Esk Valley, on the Napier-Taupo road is a farm garden with a string of these trees, which each autumn turn to fire. I once travelled up the valley at dusk, and the magnificence of the sight was almost overpowering. I recently spent time in the Bay of Plenty, where these trees are such an important part of the autumn landscape, and looked forward to coming back through the Esk to see the trees again. They did not disappoint, although I have to admit I thought I was never going to find them – they are a lot closer to Napier than I remembered.
I drove through the area in December last year and looked out for the trees, but did not notice them. For me at least, they are autumn trees, and well worth growing for that reason, and although they do hold their leaves for weeks at a time, I think it would too extravagant to have such a large tree in the garden.
Unless you go for ‘Gumball.’
This is a dwarf form which only grows to about two metres tall, and can easily be shaped into a tight ball of foliage. I have only ever seen this grafted onto a standard of about 1.5 metres, but it makes a fantastic little accent plant for the formal part of the garden. It has the usual bright green leaves through summer then in autumn the leaves take on red, wine, orange and purple shades. The leaves hold on well into the winter. I can vouch for that because I saw two of these trees in the front lawn of a garden near me, but missed photographing them as a storm approached. After a few days of nor’westerlies, followed by a thunderstorm with rain and hail, the strong southerlies, I was afraid to go back, expecting the trees to be branches only. As you can see from the photograph, both small trees still had most of their leaves.
If you have a large garden and are able to cope with a full sized liquidambar (lucky you!) it would probably pay to seek out one of the named varieties. Most Liquiambars sold in New Zealand are raised from seed, and they are relatively cheap, but some nurseries graft named varieties onto the seedling stock, and if you purchase one of them, you will be certain to get the colour you are wanting.
‘Worpleston’ is one of the most popular varieties. It has an upright pyramidal form with foliage that turns pale apricot and orange first, then switches to deep purple – the colour we imagine when we think of pinot noir.
‘Palo Alto’ also has a good pyramidal form but its leaves turn orange and red. I suspect that the Esk Valley trees are this form.
‘Aurora’ is slightly smaller growing than the previous two varieties, and turns yellow and orange in the autumn.
Of course, the other dwarf from of a popular tree is the wonderful Robinia ‘Mop Top’. They make a bold statement in the garden, and have quickly become one of the most popular trees with landscape designers, who love placing groups of them in beds, or in avenues alongside drives. They are probably now almost thought of as passé, but a bit of imaginative thought and this could make a great feature in a grass garden, or perhaps towering above some informal plantings of hebes and coprosmas.

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