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Taking a Leaf From New England

December 13, 1987

Winter may be less than a fortnight away, but autumn is holding its own in most Southern California gardens and along many of our streets. And, from the look of local liquidambars and ginkgoes, we are all going to be kept busy raking leaves for many weeks to come.

James Bauml, senior biologist at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum in Arcadia, shares our suspicion that the deciduous trees have had more color and kept their color longer this year than most. Two of the most spectacular of the sources of fall coloring --Gingko biloba , with its golden leaves, and Liquidambar styraciflua , rivaling the maples of Vermont--are imports; the gingko is from China, the liquidambar from the northeast of this continent. But at least one native plant contributes its share to the spectacle of autumn, Bauml said. It is Heteromeles arbutifolia , the toyon, sometimes called the Christmas berry--indeed, once called the holly wood and, some say, the source of the name of the film capital. Its berries, usually brilliant red and occasionally an equally dazzling yellow, are visible on the foothills now. The plant is readily adaptable to the gardens of the region.

There are other trees and shrubs, largely ignored by local gardeners, that could add pizzazz to gardens at this season, Bauml advised. Among his candidates are Nandina domestica , a colorful shrub, and Nyssa sylvatica , a tree that adapts marvelously to lawns. Not all the fall coloring begs close examination, he reminded us in listing poison oak among the most beautiful.

This is not to say that the region will ever rival New England in the autumn. But most gardeners would say that we have leaves enough to suppress.

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