A California Fall

The Botanical Garden Welcomes the Season With Some of the Usual Suspects

by Fran Marsh

November in the Sierra leaves you cold and you've already seen too many golden vineyards in the Napa Valley.

Where to find the colors you long for--the fall you remember from the Adirondacks, the Blue Ridge or the Catskills?

Just up the hill. At the Botanical Garden you can not only find a tiny bit of New England--some of the Eastern trees that glow in reds and yellows this time of year--but some peculiar plants that lend Western, South American and Asian echoes to the season. Before you know it, you'll be reveling in our own eclectic version of fall.

At the garden one November afternoon, a crimson leafed vine glints in the mist. It looks remarkably like a grape vine, which indeed, it is. But this, one of our wild, native vines, doesn't yield a cabernet sauvignon. Its miniature grape-like fruits are instead a treat for deer and other wildlife.

Vitis californica grows along the wet banks of the Russian River. Christened "Roger's Red" by a friend of Botanical Garden horticulturist Roger Raiche, it twines high into the coast live oaks at the garden entrance like strings of holiday lights. Before they dry and become brittle, the large leaves also make excellent coasters, offers Raiche.

He came across this unusual red specimen dangling in his path while driving along a back road in Sonoma County one fall several years back.

The wild grape normally colors a creamy yellow in the fall, and this variation, Raiche estimates, occurs in perhaps one in 500 plants. Making sure it wasn't a vineyard escapee, he stopped to take cuttings, and now the vine traipses about the Botanical Garden, invisible, except in fall, when its leaves flame red.

Several trees from Japan, including Lindera obtusiloba from Tochigi Prefecture, are brilliant yellow; a Japanese member of the euphorbia family--Phyllanthus flexuosus--shows a startling deep red-purple.

Descending into the garden's Eastern reaches, Raiche points out a papaw with drooping green and yellow leaves from Washington County, N.C. This papaw, of "Way Down Yonder in the Papaw Patch" fame, is already busy making its own patch-- saplings sprout around the mother plant.

From Georgia hails a Carolina allspice, so named because its now yellow leaves smell faintly spicy. From Missouri, there is a sweet gum, Liquidambar styraciflua, and the tulip trees are going into their yellow phase.

The garden's stand of pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, its violet red stems sporting trademark purple conical cluster berries, is from Barnstable County, Mass. Generations of children at play have squashed its berries in their hands and on their playmates, turning all a bright crimson.

Perhaps the most beautiful Eastern display is put on by the American smoke tree, Cotinus obovatus, from Taney County, Mo. The leaves at the end of one exquisite branch are green, tinged with red; midway back they are yellow-green; behind them leaves glow scarlet.

Not to be outdone, a nearby South American bromeliad, Fascicularia pitcairniifolia, has accommodatingly turned its center the holiday red of poinsettia.

Of course by this week, a slightly different display is to be seen, but then change is the way of the seasons.

Consider: You've already missed a most common, colorful harbinger of fall.

By now, says Raiche, the leaves have fallen from the garden's "educational" clump of poison oak, and its usual visitors--groups of school children--must wait till spring to view it clothed in green.


Copyright 1995, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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