Beyond Beauty: The Ephemeral Delights of Autumn

The many shades of autumn, in one leaf.  Acer palmatum ‘Samidare’, Photo: Aleks Monk.

The many shades of autumn, in one leaf.  Acer palmatum ‘Samidare’, Photo: Aleks Monk.

Autumn is a beautiful time in Japan. Its mild, sunny weather, with colder nights, brings relief from the heat and humidity of summer. Maples and many other plants bring beautiful leaf colors, and some plants display late-appearing flowers or attractive berries. Our Seattle Japanese Garden manifests all of these aspects of autumn beauty.

However, in fall as in spring, Japanese gardens are not about extended periods of flowering or of foliage color. Unlike Western gardens, which promote such long-lasting displays, Japanese gardens celebrate the fleeting nature of beauty, the inevitability of change, and the passage from life to death.
“Although the Japanese taste for spring and autumn may at first have been nearly equal, autumn, the season when things perish, possessed an inherently greater allure; and with the passing years – and especially the arrival in the late twelfth century of the medieval age of fighting and disorder – autumn (and its portent of winter) assumed supremacy… Underlying the Japanese preference for perishable beauty is an acute sensitivity to the passage of time. Indeed, the ‘tyranny of time’ has been a pervasive theme in literature and the other arts. It is a tribute to the aesthetic and artistic genius of the Japanese that they were ultimately able… to use this theme to extend their tastes beyond the range of conventional beauties to things, such as the withered and worn, that have literally been ravaged by time.” (H. Paul Varley, Japanese Culture, 3rd Edition, 1984)

Within the beauty of autumn color is the poignancy of withering. Fall color is the final stage in the life of a deciduous leaf. In autumn, as nights become longer, the connection between the leaf and the rest of the plant begins to be blocked off. In addition, the production of the green pigment, chlorophyll, slows down and eventually stops. The colored pigments, normally masked by chlorophyll, begin to be revealed. These are xanthophylls (yellow pigments) and carotenoids (orange pigments). Some plants also manifest anthocyanins (red and purple pigments). Like chlorophyll, these pigments eventually break down, and all that is left are tannins (brown pigments).

 

Euonymus alatus, also known as burning bush, adds striking color to the Japanese Garden.

Euonymus alatus, also known as burning bush, adds striking color to the Japanese Garden.

The quality of fall foliage display depends upon a number of factors: temperature, sunlight, soil moisture and even the nature of the particular plant. The brightest fall color is usually the result of sufficient moisture during the growing season, followed by an autumn that’s relatively dry, cool and sunny. Drought stress during the growing season, early frosts, autumn winds, and/or heavy rains may cause the leaves to fall before they develop their color potential.

Plants vary as to when, and for how long, these color changes are displayed – and this is very evident in our Seattle Japanese Garden. Ginkgo biloba, the Maidenhair Tree, emerged in the time of the dinosaurs, and thrives in our gardens today. However, its beautiful butter-yellow fall foliage lasts for only about a week. Fall color lasts longer for Japanese maples, but cultivars change color at different times. Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira (the lion’s mane maple, in Area N) is the last maple in our garden to develop its autumn colors. Euonymus alatus (burning bush, prominent in Area R – and not invasive in our climate), Viburnum plicatum forma tomentosum (doublefile viburnum, in Areas K and Q), and Enkianthus campanulatus (pagoda bush, notable throughout the garden) also display striking fall color.

 

Cottoneaster dielsianus, carefully pruned into a horizontally spreading shape, which highlights its attractive red berries.

Cottoneaster dielsianus, carefully pruned into a horizontally spreading shape, which highlights its attractive red berries.

Autumn-flowering shrubs in our garden include Camellia sasanqua (sasanqua camellia, in many areas, including next to the original Emperor’s Gate), with its simple flowers in white or pink, often fragrant. Another fall-bloomer is Osmanthus heterophyllus (holly-leaf osmanthus, in several areas), with small, fragrant white flowers. Lespedeza (bush clover, planted in Area T, next to the Azumaya) is one of the “seven flowers of autumn,” displaying small sweet-pea-shaped flowers in burgundy tones. Miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’ (porcupine grass, nearby) is another, with showy plumes above horizontally gold-banded, straplike foliage.

Several plants in the garden display attractive berries. Our rare cotoneaster, Cotoneaster dielsianus, appears at the north end of the garden, along and also above the long rock wall of the fishing village (Areas N and O). It’s carefully pruned into a horizontally spreading shape, which highlights its attractive red berries. We also have several rare types of large Euonymus shrubs, such as Euonymus hamiltonianus, E. myrianthus, and E. sieboldianus – all in Area L — with attractive pink fruits.

These displays are beautiful, yet ephemeral. They remind us that leaves, flowers and berries are part of the cycle of life. There are very few plants in our garden bred to be sterile (and thus very long-flowering). Here, we view instead the reproductive cycle of flower, fruit and seed — the inevitable passage of time, and life. Autumn is “a moment signaling the ultimate perishing of all life and beauty” – a season “beyond beauty.” (Paul Varley, ibid.)

This year, the Seattle Japanese Garden’s maple-viewing celebration is October23. We are invited to view, and encounter, the garden’s many maples, stars of the autumn season. We may also want to notice the many other plants that undergo their beautiful, yet poignant, transformations in this season.

Nature, seasonal changes, and “insight into the truth of human existence” (Paul Varley, ibid.) are magically captured in the haiku form of poetry. Developed in 17th century Japan, it consists of three lines (5 syllables, 7 syllables, and finally 5 syllables). Here is a translation of an autumn haiku by the great poet Matsuo Basho (1644-94):

so very precious
and do they tint my tears? – the
fall of autumn leaves

Autumn in our garden is a season to be treasured. It’s a time to be mindful — not simply of the garden’s beauty, but of all of its moods.

Corinne Kennedy is a guide for Seattle Japanese Garden and a contributor to the garden’s blog.

Craig Hashimoto