Trees and Shrubs for Fall Color

By Amy Howansky

Extend the sea­son of col­or in the gar­den by adding trees and shrubs that have stun­ning leaf, bark, or berry col­or in the fall.

Oxy­den­drum arbore­tum (sour­wood) has dark, glossy leaves dur­ing spring and ear­ly sum­mer, but in July, the leaves start a slow trans­for­ma­tion to peach, then medi­um rust, and final­ly to bril­liant orange-red or pink-red. Its name refers to the sour taste of the leaves, which may con­tribute to its deer resis­tance! Sour­woods pre­fer rich, acidic, non-com­pact­ed, well-drained soils, and from that pref­er­ence, we can tell that they are in the same fam­i­ly as rhodo­den­drons. Hardy to zone 5, sour­wood matures at 2030’ tall by 2030’ wide. 

Sourwood’s del­i­cate flower clus­ters, resem­bling the tas­sels of lily-of-the-val­ley, emerge in ear­ly July, slow­ly swell through mid-July, and then open ful­ly from the end of July through the begin­ning of August to reveal a light fra­grance that attracts hon­ey­bees and oth­er pol­li­na­tors. The showy flow­ers devel­op into green seed pods that slow­ly turn grey-brown and per­sist into the win­ter. From a nurs­ery sales per­spec­tive, I have observed that cus­tomers don’t glance at sour­wood until the creamy-white flow­ers are ful­ly open against the back­drop of vibrant red leaves, and then the trees sell out very quick­ly. Sad­ly, the cus­tomers miss out on observ­ing the slow, beau­ti­ful changes dur­ing flower devel­op­ment and leaf-col­or maturation. 

For bur­gundy-red leaves in fall, try Aro­nia melanocarpa. It is also called choke­ber­ry, but don’t let the name scare you, because the fruit is edi­ble for birds and humans. In the spring, Aro­nia pro­duces tiny white flow­ers held togeth­er in quar­ter-sized clus­ters. In sum­mer, the flow­ers ripen into clus­ters of blue-black fruit, which are sour if eat­en when cooked plain, but more palat­able if reduced to a syrup and driz­zled over ice cream or oat­meal as a great provider of vit­a­min C. 

In the fall, Aronia’s dark green, glossy leaves turn bur­gundy-red or pur­plish. The cul­ti­var Viking’ is 46’ tall by 46’ wide, has a round­ed crown, and tends to be bare twigged at the base. For small spaces, use Low Scape Mound,’ which matures at 1224” tall by 1824” wide. For an alter­na­tive to pachysan­dra, try Ground Hug,’ which grows only 814” tall by 3’ wide.

To get bril­liant orange-red leaf col­or in autumn, install a Fothergilla. There are sev­er­al species and cul­ti­vars avail­able, and all have white, bot­tle brush-shaped flow­ers in the spring before the leaves devel­op. The soft­ly spiked flow­ers sit on bare twigs, which cre­ates an inter­est­ing tex­ture, and might look strik­ing if set in front of a dark green ever­green. After flow­er­ing, the leaves emerge green, thick, and leath­ery. They stay green through­out the sum­mer as the dead flower spikes turn brown and slow­ly dis­in­te­grate. In fall, the leaves turn a mot­tled mix of orange, yel­low-orange, and red-orange. The cul­ti­var Blue Shad­ow’ is hardy to zone 4, gets 35’ tall by 4 — 5’ wide at matu­ri­ty, and sports leaves with a bluish cast, which adds inter­est dur­ing the sum­mer before the autumn color-change.

Rhus aro­mat­i­ca (fra­grant sumac) will also pro­vide a gor­geous autumn dis­play of orange to red-bur­gundy. It is not the species that grows along the road­side, and nei­ther species is poi­so­nous. In fact, the species along the road (Rhus typhi­na) has red, fur­ry seeds that are high in vit­a­min C, and can be added to lemon­ade to make a del­i­cate­ly col­ored and fla­vored late-sum­mer drink. The species aro­mat­i­ca has leaves that smell like mown grass; pull off a three-part­ed leaf and crush it between your fin­gers to release the aro­ma. The cul­ti­var Gro-Low’ stays 1824” low, but it can widen out to 68’. It works won­der­ful­ly as a ground­cov­er in full sun, part-shade, and deep­er shade. Use it on slopes where the mow­er can’t go or as a tran­si­tion between a for­mal bed and a more wood­land-like setting.

Ilex ver­ti­cil­la­ta (win­ter­ber­ry) is a decid­u­ous hol­ly that drops its small, dark-green leaves in the fall. If pol­li­nat­ed prop­er­ly by sep­a­rate male shrubs, the female shrubs will pro­duce a pletho­ra of yel­low, orange, or, most com­mon­ly, red berries in mid-fall. The vibrant berries will per­sist until late win­ter when food is scarce and the birds flock in to eat the nutri­tious fruit. Many win­ter­ber­ry cul­ti­vars are large, matur­ing at 8 — 10’ tall by 8 — 10’ wide, but the cul­ti­var Lit­tle Gob­lin Red’ stays 34’ tall by 34’ wide. Gar­den­ers must also make room for its male pol­li­na­tor Lit­tle Gob­lin Guy,’ which sim­i­lar­ly matures at 34’ tall by 34’ wide, but does not pro­duce berries. 

Leaves and berries can pro­vide late-sea­son col­or, but to real­ly extend the inter­est in the gar­den, con­sid­er adding shrubs and trees with col­or­ful win­ter bark. Acer palma­tum San­go-kaku’ has leaves that open yel­low with a red edge, turn yel­low-green dur­ing the sum­mer, then return to a love­ly yel­low in the fall. The leaf tran­si­tion is amaz­ing, but the best fea­ture is the tran­si­tion of the bark col­or. It begins red­dish-brown in spring, becomes red­der in the sum­mer, inten­si­fies again in the fall, and final­ly turns bril­liant red in the win­ter, where it stands out strik­ing­ly against the bar­ren, white, snowy land­scape. The cul­ti­var can be chal­leng­ing to find at sup­pli­ers, and the price will reflect that. 

Oth­er plants with late-sea­son col­or: Nys­sa syl­vat­i­ca (tupe­lo), Cepha­lan­thus occi­den­tal­is (but­ton­bush), and Itea vir­gini­ca (Vir­ginia sweetspire).

Click on the pho­tos below for plant identification.

Tap to view full size

Fall 2022

Volume 40 , Number 3

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