November plant of the month

Autumn colour has already been exceptional this year, and the sweet gum or liquidambar from the eastern USA is set to fill November with fiery beauty

Liquidambar styraciflua 'Parasol'Liquidambar is one of those trees that looks grand and statuesque all year and then becomes a blaze of glory. It sets social media on fire! Our visitors clamour to find out when it is looking its best. And in the olden days we’d have plenty of phone calls asking…

Luckily for Wisley we have several fine specimens. Perhaps the most prominent is the one on Seven Acres, but did you know about the rest of them? All so good that they hold the Award of Garden Merit (AGM).

In the Bowes-Lyon Rose Garden, near Weather Hill Cottage and the Vegetable Garden, ‘Worplesdon’, named after a local village near Guildford, turns a deep red. Its prominent five-fingered leaves colour up first on the eastern side where they catch the morning sun.

For the best display, head into the Jubilee Arboretum. It’s breathtaking this year, and the colour goes on for weeks (subject to stormy weather). By the play area, overlooking the Glasshouse Lake, ‘Penwood’ and ‘Lane Roberts’ welcome you in – their bright orange and red leaves, respectively, catch your eye from afar, almost dragging you over to see what they are. Close up, the way each leaf is coloured can be mesmerising. It’s all down to the breakdown of chemicals, but this isn’t the time for a biochemistry lesson (green chlorophyll breaks down to show the anthocyanins and other pigments). What’s more, these two trees have lovely, rounded shapes.

‘Lane Roberts’ reliably produces a brilliant display of deep crimson autumn colour and is one of the best liquidambars available. It was named after a gynaecologist who, during his career, delivered two babies destined to become presidents of the RHS.

Liquidambar styraciflua 'Corky'Up in the arboretum, a young ‘Corky’ (see second photo) has a more columnar form, with bright red leaves. Travel down to the far corner of the arboretum and you’ll find a much more yellow cultivar – ‘Parasol’ (first photo) - and orangey ‘Thea’. ‘Moraine’ is a late-turner. Still green in early November with several yellow leaves and an upright form.

Acid soil and a sunny site will produce the best autumn colour; glossy green, deeply lobed leaves also make it a lovely tree for spring and summer.

See also

Enjoy a blaze of autumn colour

Get RHS advice on what to do if autumn colour in your garden isn't as good as you'd like it to be

Find your way to these trees with a map of the gardens at Wisley

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The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.