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Thoughts From the Garden of Ed

Keeblers and Chlorophyl
by Billy Goodnick


Maidenhair Tree / Ginkgo biloba

Don't believe everything you hear as a kid. It turns out that deciduous trees don't turn yellow and orange and red because forest dwellers paint the leaves by the light of a full moon. I vaguely remember seeing that in a cartoon, but even as a young child, I was skeptical. Where, I wondered, would the Keeblerians get all that paint? How could they organize and execute en masse? It's not like they could text.

Turns out fall foliage color is a subtractive, rather than additive process. When deciduous trees (the ones that drop their leaves so you can add them to your mulch pile) are at full tilt boogie in the spring and summer they pump out lots of luscious green chlorophyl. Then, when cold temperatures hit, production of chlorophyl peters out revealing the orange, yellow and red chemical compounds present in the leaves all along.

Even if the folks in the forests of Maine throw their heads back in derisive laughter at our comparatively lackluster show, you will see some lovely displays if you keep your receptors tuned. And since our so-called cold weather doesn't arrive until right about now, our "fall" color might need to file for a name change.

All The Leaves Are Brown

Santa Barbara has a few deciduous native trees, but their fall color is low in wow-factor. Mention "fall color" to a California sycamore (Platanus racemosa) and you can almost hear it think, "Don't look at ME!" The leaves of these mighty, riparian trees make an almost imperceptible summer's-end transition from dull green to French fry gold. The earthy color comes from tannin, a waste products from the tree's natural processes. The other natives aren't much more exciting. When valley oak, white alder and willow go dormant, the most you can hope for are a few half-hearted tints of yellow.

Natives aside, that doesn't mean there's isn't plenty going on in the 805: You just have to look to the imports. Here are a few of my faves, including a hints on how to use them in your own landscape.


Eastern Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is the tried and true performer around here. Its natural range is from New York to Texas but does just fine in the West. There are many cultivars (plant selected and propagated for specific traits) with foliage ranging from burgundy to red to orange to yellow. Their basic form is vertical, tending to be much taller than they are wide. If that fact leads you to think, "Cool, I'll put it in that narrow strip along my driveway, I say, "DON'T YOU DARE!" As long as I'm yelling at you, you should know that the aggressive surface roots of sweetgum trees will lift and crack paving and bust open concrete retaining walls. And keep it out of your lawn: Those same roots will stop a 500 hp lawnmower dead in its tracks. If you really want one, give it lots of space. Better yet, talk your neighbor into planting it!

Great Balls of Fire

I wish more people would plant Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis). Like the sweetgum, it's a reliable fall fireball, turning up the heat with vermillion and crimson leaflets forming a round canopy, thirty-foot high tree. Pistache is high on my list of sustainable trees for residential landscapes-low water needs, pretty much pest and disease free, cooperative roots, good conversationalist at parties. You get the idea. Plant one!

Pure As The Driven Snow - Just Not Around Here

Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana) is a bit of an oddball in our climate. Like it's very popular cousin, the evergreen pear (Pyrus kawakami), it's SUPPOSED to erupt in a shower of delicate snow-white blossoms in the spring, but not so much here in SB. It just doesn't go deeply dormant long enough to come out swinging when the weather warms up. Right now, along both sides of my very own driveway, Bradford pear is putting on a scrumdidiliumptious show of reddish purple leaves. The most mature specimens in StaBarbaraCA tower over the sidewalk along Anapamu Street, right between the main library and Coffee Cat.

Euro Chic

You can't miss the distinctive white bark, shiny brown branches, pendulous twigs and delicate golden leaves of the European Birch (Betula europaea). Wanna create a bit of instant East Coast ambiance around your Cape Cod casa? Here's your tree. However, don't expect to win a water-conservation award since birches need plenty of supplemental water to look their best through summer heat. You'll often see these trees planted in naturalistic groupings right in the middle of a lawn. If you must have a lawn, keep at least three feet of clear space around the tree to avoid hitting it with mowers and weed whips.

The Tree That Keeps On Giving

My wife, Lin, created a killer cookie recipe years ago. It has a magical ingredient. Every fall we watch from our second-story bedroom window as our neighbor's Japanese Persimmon tree (Diospyros kaki) begins its fall color display. A few weeks later it'll be time to help them gather the fruit, preheat the oven and get out the mixer.

Persimmon lovers fall into two camps: The fans of the Fuyu variety eat the crunchy fruits right off the tree, like an apple. The Hachiya camp take another approach waiting until the orange tomato-shaped orbs get kinda mushy (some say snotty) before it develops its incredibly sweet flavor. These are the ones that go into the cookies, or you can just scoop out the jelly-like flesh and slather it over a bowl of McConnell's French vanilla ice cream. Sorry, this isn't supposed to be a food commercial. Just enjoy this incredible shot of a brightly colored persimmon tree with a Mexican marigold in the foreground.

Call for Hackers

I have an idea how we can speed the local economic recovery. What do you say we hack into the GPS systems of a few of those fall foliage bus tours from Maine, divert them a few miles west and get the passengers to dump out their wallets here on the American Riviera? I hear crisp greenbacks being stuffed into cash registers. And if you want to eliminate unemployment in a hard-hit sector of the population, let's get those Keebler elves off their asses and start ?em painting palm fronds along East Beach.

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Billy Goodnick is a nice guy who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.


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