Grumpy's Road Trip: Fall Color at Biltmore
In his more than three decades at Southern Living, nothing has stressed out Grumpy more than the annual search for brilliant fall color to astound its readers. That’s because being at the right place at the right time to photograph peak color is an infinitely more difficult than solving Fermat’s Last Theorem (which I have, of course, but that’s a story for another time). Nature is nothing if not fickle. It exists to drive us mad.Therefore, imagine you are Parker Andes, head horticultural honcho at the magnificent Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. Thousands of pilgrims time their visit to witness peak fall color gracing its 8,000 acres featuring formal gardens and a naturalistic, pastoral landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.
I was in Asheville last weekend to promote my new book, The Grumpy Gardener (widely considered the second greatest book ever written), and had some spare time following a disastrous PowerPoint presentation at Malaprops Bookstore (technology is NOT our friend). Parker was nice enough to take time to escort me through the gardens while I sympathized with his plight.
“People want to know what day will be peak color,” he imparted. “They don’t mean a bush here or there. They mean the whole mountainside.” Immediately, I started suffering flashbacks. Fortunately, Parker had a paper sack on hand when I hyperventilated. Following a few minutes of controlled breathing and chanting my mantra (“craft beeeeeeeer”), I felt strong enough to continue the tour. It turned out that Biltmore had a LOT of fall color. As a sampling, let’s begin with two shrubs that look berry, berry good to me.
This here is purple beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma), an Asian cousin to our native beautyberry, Callicarpa americana. Compared to the native species, purple beautyberry is tidier and more graceful with smaller leaves. And its berries rest atop the branches, rather than being whorled around them.
And this here is the showiest of all hollies, our native winterberry (Ilex verticillata). Unlike most hollies, it loses its leaves in winter, but that’s good. The lack of foliage reveals stems adorned with gleaming, bright red berries that last from fall to spring. And though it grows fine in normal garden soil, it also thrives in wet soil where other shrubs wouldn’t.
Look around as you drive more than two miles from the front gate to the famous Walled Garden and realize that almost every tree you see was planted by hand, like this beautiful Japanese maple, just beginning to color up.
Think you can’t get good fall color in shade? If you plant this guy, our native bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), you’ll see how wrong you are. This suckering large shrub features showy spikes of white flowers in summer and transcendent, bright-yellow foliage in fall. I have it in my woodland garden and it couldn’t be easier to grow.
“When will the fall color peak?”
I want to thank Parker Andes for some much-needed plant talk between two guys who know botanical names and aren’t afraid to acknowledge their nerdiness. Parker faces many challenges—from protecting mature hemlocks and ashes against attack from introduced pests to growing roses with minimal use of chemicals to stopping idiots from carving their initials into the bark of native magnolias. These tasks pale, of course, to the overriding question that consumes his every waking minute: “When will the fall color peak?”
For more information about visiting Biltmore, go to biltmore.com.