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The splendor of the season

It might be balmy here, but the Southland's trees know a thing or two about head-turning fall displays.

November 22, 2002|Robert Smaus | Special to The Times

While the remnants of New England's famously colorful fall foliage now lie buried beneath the snow and ice, fall is coming into its own right here, probably on a street near you.

Southern California can't compete with New England's fiery oranges and reds, or even the gold that flows down the mountain gullies of the Eastern Sierra, but the landscape better-known for its palms also knows how to turn a fall leaf or two.

In the San Fernando Valley, streets are lined with golden Modesto ash, red crape myrtles or bronzy zelkovas. Individual specimens of bright orange pistache, an ornamental relative of the nut-bearing tree, dot the hills and sides of freeways.

In Canyon Country and Acton, the yellow on Lombardy poplars and other deciduous trees can be blinding, although their autumn is almost over.

Elsewhere in the Southland, the show has barely begun. In some areas, trees will continue to color up well into December.

In Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley, one finds avenues of brightly colored liquidambar, the rather dirty yellow of tipu trees and some spectacular golden ginkgo. Ginkgo will often color surprisingly well in the mildest areas, such as Fullerton, or Lakewood. Both have streets lined with this ancient tree.

Some of the best trees to turn color -- the real fall foliage factories -- are seldom planted on streets, although they can occasionally be spotted in frontyards. Two of the most dramatic are the Chinese tallow tree (Sapium) and the sour gum (Nyssa), which turn yellow to orange to bright red before their leaves finally flutter down.

There are plenty of leaves to color canyons, as a drive through Topanga will show. Accentuating the gold of the sycamores are the dabs of bright yellow on the shrubby willows, which also cling to creek banks.

The most common by far of the dozen or so street trees that reliably color up is the liquidambar -- which, despite its handsome looks, has its detractors: It drops spiny round seed pods and has roots that make it a champion sidewalk-lifter.

In Donald R. Hodel's book "Exceptional Trees of Los Angeles" (California Arboretum Foundation, 1988), he singled out a planting of liquidambar on Ross Avenue in Alhambra as having exceptional size and fall color. The ones on Westwood Boulevard south of Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles positively glow when backlit by the sun. Keith Lenik, manager at Boething Treeland Nursery in Woodland Hills, has a number of favorite street trees for fall color in the Valley, such as the zelkovas (related to elms) that line Platt Avenue near Oxnard Street in West Hills, or the bright yellow Modesto ash on Canoga Avenue between Burbank Boulevard and Oxnard, or the crape myrtles on Fallbrook Avenue, or on Shoup Avenue between Victory and Ventura boulevards.

Other trees that might be found along streets in the Valley include the Chinese flame and flamegold (both Koelreuteria), which turn bright yellow some years and are probably better-known for their salmon-colored seed pods. These are common in parts of West L.A. and Orange County as well.

Then there are the tulip trees (Liriodendron) -- commonly found in the Valley -- although Hodel says it was in Whittier that he found the most spectacular planting of this tree, in the 5400 block of Rockne Avenue.

Few trees turn color as reliably as the bright, golden-yellow ginkgo. Its leaves remain gold even after lying on the ground for days, or even weeks. Walking down a sidewalk littered with ginkgo leaves, kicking them into the air as you plow though them, is quite a treat.

Although there are ginkgoes all over (the tree has been around since Jurassic times), the most impressive one Hodel found is in the 1100 block of North Palomares Street in Pomona. He says it's most colorful around the first of December.

Frank Burkard at Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena says his favorite place to see ginkgoes is on Lombardy Road, just east of Allen Avenue near the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino. These trees are the variety "Autumn Gold," which lives up to its name and is a good choice for larger home gardens.

Ginkgoes will even produce fabulous color in areas that don't get close to being cold.

Janet Van Diest with the Fullerton Arboretum says there's a handsome planting on Cornell Avenue between Chapman and Commonwealth avenues in Fullerton. Hodel says there's a planting that's still rather young but quite colorful on Hayter Avenue near Michelson Street in his hometown of Lakewood. There are even individual trees near the beach in places such as Santa Monica.

As you drive around this fall and discover good foliage on the streets of Southern California, remember that not much of what you see is suitable for the average garden. The best and most majestic street trees grow too large and get too greedy and aggressive for most gardens.

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