Real Solutions: Witch Hazel and Shrubs
Are there trees and shrubs that flower in the fall that I can use in my landscape? — R.M., Lincoln, MA
A good number of herbaceous perennials (soft-stem plants that die to the ground in winter) bloom during the fall in New England — including Aconitum, Aster, Chrysanthemum, Sedum, and Filipendula, among others — but very few woody plants do so. Here are two worthy exceptions.
The common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is a 20- to 30-foot low-branched woodland shrub, native to most of the eastern U.S. and hardy to zone 3. It opens its fragrant yellow flowers in mid-October and may continue blooming into late November or early December. A wonderful choice at the edge of the woods, it’s mostly pest-free and tolerates most growing conditions, sun or shade. The astringent extract witch hazel that you find in your drugstore is produced by distilling the leaves and bark of this plant.
Seven-son flower (Heptacodium miconioides), native to China, has only recently become commercially available in the U.S. Fragrant white blossoms open from August into September, followed by a spectacular reddish-purple display as sepals replace the flowers, continuing for two to three weeks, until a hard freeze. It’s a Cary Award winner (caryaward.org), winter-hardy to zone 5, and pest-resistant. One notable feature is its distinctive exfoliating brown-and-gray bark, reminiscent of crepe myrtle, making it an appealing winter garden choice.
Some of the shrubs we planted several years ago around our home have grown too large and are crowding one another. Is fall a good time to move them to another location? Can I do this myself, or do I need to hire a professional landscaper? — S.H., Chester, CT
Note that in New England, some trees, such as birch, cherry, pear, and stone fruits (plum, apricot, and so on), as well as certain ornamental grasses, should be lifted from the ground only in spring. But mid-August to mid-October is a fine time to transplant most other trees and shrubs, and also most herbaceous perennials. It’s also safe to plant any containerized or predug plants for sale at your local garden center. Soil temperatures are still warm, letting new roots grow and letting plants become established before winter. Make sure you water them and maintain adequate (not drowning) soil moisture until the ground freezes.
Transplanting without a landscape professional is doable, providing the plants aren’t excessively mature and that you follow fundamental horticultural principles. Your local garden center can provide planting guidelines and advice, all relatively simple. Doing the transplanting yourself saves money, and cooler temperatures at this time of year make the experience more enjoyable, too.
We have a tree that my “green thumb” neighbor has identified as cornelian cherry, and it’s bearing a lot of berries this year. Are they edible? — J.P., Dover, NH
Good question — it’s always wise to identify the edibility of any plant part before taking a chance! (Take a sample to your local garden center to be sure.) Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is usually grown as a shrub, but can be trained to grow as a tree. It matures at 20 to 25 feet high and almost as wide.