Southern Arbor Day is the first Friday in December. Those of us who live in the lower South have the advantage of being able to plant a tree at a time that will give it the best possible start. Because our ground does not freeze, the tree can begin root growth that will help it survive the hot and often dry weather of summer.
We know that trees conserve energy, reduce soil erosion, clean the air we breathe, and help protect our ponds and streams.
Trees that produce fruit, seeds, nuts and acorns provide the food and shelter for our wildlife that will continue to diminish without our help.
And trees are so beautiful.
No need to take a trip up North to view the fall color. You can see and admire it right in your own backyards.
I'm going to help you with information about trees that provide a swash of color in the Lowcountry and, in my mind, come together with the evergreen live oaks, hollies, cedars, magnolias and pines, to form the greatest show on earth.
Let's start with sweetgum, sometimes called "red gum" and "satinwood." One of the largest hardwood trees in the South, it often grows to a height of more then 100 feet.
If you've the room for it, you have a bonanza; its leaves make for the showiest tree of them all, turning scarlet and deep crimson in fall.
A smaller tree? Flowering dogwood makes a slow change from green to multicolored, and there's the Japanese red maple with leaves of reddish-purple. In spring, it gives a bonus; its leaves repeat colors in fall.
A small- to medium-size tree that's ideal for home landscaping is the red maple. The leaves match those of the sugar maple for fall brilliance, turning a brilliant red, orange or, sometimes, yellow. I have two sassafras trees in the yard. They've popped up out of the ground unaided. Their mitten-shaped leaves turn deep orange, scarlet and yellow in the fall.
One of the largest trees in my yard is the white oak. Although the leaves have been called a dull red, bronze or yellow, this tree is a favorite for holding onto its leaves until winter and providing acorns for squirrels and other animals. If you can provide the moisture the black tupelo requires, you'll be rewarded with brilliant red foliage in the fall. Valued for its gorgeous fall color as well as its distinctive form -- it might be trained to form two trunks -- the black tupelo is one of the most distinctive trees of the Lowcountry.
I wish I could persuade more gardeners to grow bald cypress. It grows 50 to 70 feet tall, and I don't have the space. It is thought of as a tree for wet conditions but is adaptable to dry. It does drop its needles in the fall, giving the tree its bald designation and creating confusion that leads Lowcountry visitors to feel sorry for the dying hemlocks. It creates a majestic, orange red fall color.
If there is a tree with a more spectacular fall show than the golden rain tree, I've not seen or heard of it. Grown in full sun, the fast-growing tree gives a spring show with large, golden flowers. In fall it stops traffic with basketball-size, papery, hanging bunches of grape-like, apricot-colored capsules. Not easy to describe, the tree looks as though it's been decorated by human hands. Sadly, I shall not see this show in my own yard. Although I've three small golden rain trees I've grown from seed, there's not enough sun to produce a fall show.
It's no secret I've gone native since arriving on Hilton Head Island. It's been an ongoing delight to discover I have lots of company. Through the years we've helped to grow and save wildflowers, native shrubs and trees despite a dry spell that's lasted far too long. We've lost some real treasures. It is with the pleasure that can only come when good effort meets good people that the Hilton Head Island Garden Council has made the Xeriscape Garden at Town Hall their ongoing project of this decade. The past year has seen a cleanup of the existing garden by local Master Gardeners. We are now planting the familiar native plants and some that we've not seen here for many years.