At Jenkins Arboretum, slow down and soak in fall's colors

An American strawberry bush, whose nicknames include bursting-heart and hearts-bustin'-with-love.
An American strawberry bush, whose nicknames include bursting-heart and hearts-bustin'-with-love.
Posted: November 23, 2013

The shadows of our walking selves are huge and distorted, like giants moonwalking in a fun house.

Who knew Jenkins Arboretum could be so entertaining on a mild afternoon in autumn?

Its 46 acres are gently tucked into a residential neighborhood in Devon, not far from the Route 202 raceway, where everyone, it seems, considers speed limits optional.

You can hear the traffic deep inside the garden, but the sound is nicely muffled, like the muted landscape of this quiet season and place.

Steven A. Wright, director of horticulture and curator of plant collections, is hosting our walkabout, part of a weekly series that has just wrapped up for the year. He's guiding a visitor down the garden pathway, which curves this way and that. On either side are shade-loving azaleas, but their season is past, their blooms long gone.

We walk on, laughing at our crazy shadows, and suddenly, a surprise. Azaleas in bloom!

These, Wright explains, are sun-tolerant Encore azaleas that flower in spring with all the rest, then do it again in fall. Mostly southern plants, they are suitable for hardiness Zones 7 to 10, making the Philadelphia area, a combination of Zones 6 and 7, their northernmost range.

Jenkins has been monitoring these plants, in various shades of pink, and rating their ability to hold up in cold weather. Many do from late September into December.

(Plant people love to game the seasons, and azaleas abloom in November certainly qualify.)

But these blinks of pink are not for everyone.

"Some people don't want to see flowers in fall. They think fall should be about foliage and fruits," Wright says.

He's onto something. The azaleas look out of place here and now. Jenkins - known for its springtime azaleas and rhododendrons, and blessed with much more - may be a pinwheel of pastels and primary colors in spring and summer, but in fall it's mostly a land of brown.

It's a beautiful rainbow of hues - hazelnut and mocha, mahogany and ebony - that makes us think of food and fine furniture.

Brown plays well with the yellow leaves and starry flowers of witch hazel and the brilliant red of Franklinia and sassafras. High-bush blueberry, enkianthus, and oakleaf hydrangea, three more fall favorites for home gardens, are an artist's swirl of pink, red, yellow, and gold.

The leaves at Jenkins are shin-deep, not scorned for the mess they make but treasured for the nutrients they contain. Whatever falls on the path gets routed to the compost pile; the rest, in one of nature's most ingenious schemes, decompose where they fall and enrich the soil.

We stray from the path, drawn to a Euonymus americanus, or American strawberry bush, whose nicknames include bursting-heart and - true story - hearts-bustin'-with-love.

It's an airy thing, leaves seemingly hanging unsupported in midair, like, come to think of it, a fool in crazy love. The bright scarlet seed pods - faux strawberries, with purple innards and orange seeds - are past their prime but still arresting.

Not far away, a chestnut oak, so named because its leaves resemble the American chestnut's, is arresting us with its deeply ridged bark. It reminds Wright of chunky peanut butter.

Which makes us laugh yet again.

You can tell all's well in this naturalistic fun house.

Drive on, distant speeders! You'll never know what you've missed.

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To see more autumn magic at Jenkins Arboretum, go to www.inquirer.com/ginny


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