"Where there’s Smoke, there’s Fire," by the Whistling Gardener

Euonymus Burning Bush. Photo courtesy of Monrovia.
Burning Bush. Photo courtesy of Monrovia Nursery.

This column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Keeping our landscapes changing is so critical to keeping our interest in gardening. With change, there’s the anticipation of something new and exciting. With change, our garden compositions take on whole new personalities. And with change, we find opportunities to experience our gardens in ways we may not have originally conceived.

Fall is one of those forces that brings change to our gardens. Plants that may have been smoldering all season are all of a sudden coming alive, glowing with brilliant colors. Shrubs like forsythia that entertained us way back in early spring are once again coming to front stage for an encore performance. Only this time, it’s foliage and not flowers that are sparking our interest.

We are blessed with an abundance of plants that turn spectacular colors in the fall. Unfortunately, many yards are missing this key element in their garden design. Consumed with not wanting to rake leaves or look at “dead” sticks in the winter, we pass by these marvelous plants that keep our landscapes changing and interesting through the different seasons of the year. Here are some examples with incendiary names that will surely set your landscape on fire…

SMOKE TREE — This plant gets its name from the flowers that appear in the summer that look like feathery plumes of smoke - but that’s not its strong feature. The most popular varieties have dark purple foliage that is translucent in the sunshine. The leaves take on reddish tones in late September. Smoke trees can become small trees (15 feet tall) or be treated as large shrubs. They can even be cut to the ground in March and forced to re-sprout from the base. This will cause them to produce strong stems with beautiful new foliage reaching six to eight feet tall! You won’t get many flowers this way, but the foliar effect will be dynamic. Plant smoke trees in full sun, average soil, and reasonable drainage for best results.

BURNING BUSH — The name says it all. The pleasingly textured foliage turns a brilliant red in the fall and only lasts for a few short weeks. But that’s not the end of the story… Small reddish purple fruits that attract birds appear after the leaves fall off. And there’s more! The bark is “winged” and adds winter interest as well. Who could ask for anything more out of a plant? Burning bushes grow in full sun or part shade, average soil and some moisture. Too dry and they will look bleached. “Compactus” is the most common variety and grows to four to six feet tall.

BONFIRE HEAVENLY BAMBOO — Don’t panic, this is not a true bamboo! This is a broadleaf evergreen shrub that doesn’t lose its leaves in the winter. However, those slender, distinctively swirly leaves turn bright orange-red in the fall and stay that way all winter. A soft textured form of Nandina, Bonfire only grows to three feet tall by three feet wide. Nandinas will grow in full sun or full shade in our mild northwest climate. Most garden centers stock several varieties of heavenly bamboo. Their textures are pleasing and they provide a fine backdrop for other coarser textured shrubs. Most have white terminal clusters of flowers that produce red berries that persist throughout the winter. Bonfire is an exception, but the foliage is so spectacular that you will never miss the flowers!

The above plants are just a little kindling to start your garden fires burning. There’s a whole woodshed of plants out there just waiting to feed your bonfire. Get out and discover them for yourselves!

Sunnyside will be hosting a free class, “Terrariums,” Saturday October 13, 2018, at 10:00 am.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA, and can be reached at

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