Add Fiery Autumn Foliage
Even summer’s most ardent fans have to admit that fall offers some irresistible pleasures. Luckily, you can enjoy autumn’s signature foliage show even if you live where summer cools gently into a mild winter and many leaves simply go brown before they fall. Just plant some key trees and shrubs that produce reliable color wherever they grow.
Here are some generally well-behaved plants that do well in a range of climates. All of them dazzle in the fall, and, as a bonus, many also put on a show in other seasons, too, with flowers in the spring or summer, fruit later in the year, and interesting bark in the winter.
Shown: A classic white Colonial Revival is the perfect foil for fall’s yellow, orange, and red leaves.
Gingkos put on a spectacular yellow show in fall. Considered living fossils because they are the last survivors of tree varieties that grew worldwide 200 million years ago, gingkos are related to conifers but have fan-shaped leaves rather than needles. The leaves resemble those of the maidenhair fern, thus the common name: maidenhair tree. Trees often have an umbrella shape and can grow 80 feet tall, though many stay only half that height.
Full sun; regular to moderate water; Zones 4–9
TOH Tip: It’s worth noting that unless you have a large property, some of the season’s beauties are best enjoyed while driving through the countryside rather than planted near your home. Quaking aspen, a shining star of the western landscape because of golden leaves that seem to shimmer as they flutter in even a slight breeze, sends out aggressive surface roots and numerous suckers, which can create havoc with pavement and underground pipes. Similarly, the beloved sugar maples of the Northeast can lift a concrete sidewalk if planted too close to the street.
Also known as smoketree, this plant can be allowed to grow as a shrub or be pruned as a small tree. Small yellow flowers open in June. As they fade, long stalks with fuzzy pink hairs spring out, creating the impression that the plant is surrounded by purple to pinkish-tan smoke. These fade away by fall, when the leaves turn yellow or orange-red. ‘Royal Purple’ has purple foliage that turns scarlet red; ‘Ancot’ has lime-green leaves that go orange.
Full sun; moderate water; Zones 5-8
With dainty branches that become dense with rounded leaves, katsuras make great shade trees all summer, then put on a show of yellow or pinkish yellow in fall. Around the time leaves fall, the tree produces a fragrance that some call spicy; others compare it to brown sugar. Most katsuras have a pyramid shape when young but over time may become as wide as they are tall (up to 60 feet). There are also weeping forms, such as ‘Amazing Grace,’ that look particularly beautiful when the branches are bare in winter.
Full sun to light shade; regular water; Zones 4-8
If you crave fragrance and flowers, as well as colorful leaves in fall, plant this native shrub. It glows with yellow when its leaves turn in early autumn. In late fall, its flowers appear and remain on the branches even after the leaves have fallen (see inset). The flowers, also yellow, have a curious shape that some people compare to mopheads or spiders, and smell of spice.
Full sun to partial shade; regular water; Zones 3-9
Warm-winter gardeners can delight in the bright yellow fall leaves of this unusual shrub or small tree. Some varieties, including ‘Wonderful’ and ‘Ambrosia,’ produce edible fruit in the fall, with red or pink skin encasing juicy but seedy sacs of pulp. Left hanging on the tree, the fruit resembles ball-shaped Christmas ornaments. Other pomegranates are purely ornamental. ‘Chico’ has orange-red double flowers that resemble carnations, but they don’t develop into fruit. ‘Nana’ has single orange-red flowers that form fruit, but it is small and not juicy.
Full sun; regular water; Zones 7-10
When the dainty bell flowers of spring and the juicy berries of summer are just memories, blueberries continue to delight, with leaves that turn yellow, orange, or wine red in fall. Northern types do well where winters are cold but don’t set fruit in warm-winter areas. There, grow southern varieties, also known as rabbiteyes. All northern types have brilliant fall color. Of the southern varieties, the hybrid ‘O’Neal’and ‘Jubilee’ (V. corymbosum) are two of the best looking. ‘Sunshine Blue,’ an evergreen, performs well nearly everywhere. About half its leaves turn red in the fall; the rest stay on all winter.
Full sun to partial shade; regular water; Zones 5-10
Gardeners grow red-twig dogwoods mostly for the color of the stems once the leaves drop. But the leaves of most varieties also turn brilliant red or reddish purple before they fall. For the reddest stems, look for ‘Arctic Fire’ (C. stolinifera), which grows 3 to 4 feet tall, and ‘Baileyi’ (C. sericea), which is twice as big. Yellow-twig dogwoods, such as ‘Flaviramea’ (C. sericea), also have reddish-purple leaves in fall. Red-twig dogwoods with variegated foliage vary in fall color. All types have clusters of white flowers in spring and white to red-purple fruit that birds enjoy.
Full sun to partial shade; regular water; Zones 2-9
No list of fall foliage plants would be complete without maple trees. Sugar maple (A. saccharum) is the quintessential stalwart in New England, where hillsides of them turn gorgeous shades of red, orange, and yellow. Sugar maples grow up to 75 feet tall and 40 feet wide. If your yard can’t handle that, consider other kinds of maples that also have strikingly colorful leaves in fall, including vine maple (A. circinatum), native to the Northwest, and the smaller Japanese maple (A. palmatum). Avoid invasive types, including Amur (A. ginnala) and Norway (A. platanoides) maples.
Full sun to partial shade; regular water; Zones 3-9
Despite its name, this small tree bears bright pinkish-purple spring flowers before its heart-shaped leaves appear. Most varieties turn yellow in autumn; the eastern redbud (C. canadensis) ‘Forest Pansy’ is one of the few with reddish-purple fall foliage. In winter, long mahogany seed pods cling to bare branches. The eastern redbud is more common and adaptable than the western natives (C. occidentalis and C. canadensis mexicana), though the latter are very drought tolerant. Due to its varied seasonal interest and its ability to grow in light shade, redbud provides a great contrast next to evergreens. Eastern kinds grow to 35 feet; western types to about half that.
Full sun or light shade; moderate to regular water; Zones 4-9
TOH Pro Advice
“The colorful fall trees you really notice stand by themselves, so don’t bury them in a bunch of shrubs. Group a few together if you want a really big show.” —Roger Cook, TOH landscape contractor