Sometimes I think those of us who live in parts of the U.S. with mixed-species deciduous forest take our autumnal show of colors for granted, especially here in the mid-Atlantic. I have visited several wonderful places around our country (and others) which, despite their beautiful and varied flora, I feel wouldn’t be as interesting in fall as our landscapes are here. We are fortunate to have many trees, shrubs and vines that turn a wondrous array of colors in autumn, and the show lasts for weeks. It’s also fortuitous timing that these color changes coincide with the cooler days and crisp nights that knock down the pesky biting insects and stifling humidity of summer, so we’re happy to explore the outdoors for hours at a time. Whether you choose to go hiking, paddling, driving a scenic route or simply staying at home and venturing back out into the yard, here are some of the many local plants that will be catching your attention this autumn.
Tupelo / Black Gum
Don’t let the “gum” part of the name fool you – these are not Sweetgum trees, nor do they produce prickly seed pods. (Sweetgums get wonderful fall colors in their own right, though!) I find Tupelo trees to be very reliable in their fall coloration – often vibrant red – and I have seen whole sections of forest light up when a stand of these trees all change color at once. Female trees can produce dark blue berries which will be a big draw for birds fattening-up for winter or migration. If you have less than ideal soil (don’t we all?), Tupelo is a great candidate for tolerating both wetter or drier zones and competition from other trees due to their taproot and tolerance for a bit of shade.
One of the most abundant contributors to the fall color palette of the northeast, Red Maples are also highly adaptable and make great shade trees. In the wild they can be found in low, wet areas and are suitable for use in gardens with less-than-ideal drainage. Be aware that they don’t like too much salt from surfaces treated for winter ice, and if used in a lawn or next to a sidewalk, mature trees can have shallow surface roots that may be trip hazards. Red Maples grow pretty fast, though, so if you want shade with minimal wait, they’re one of your best bets. Female trees will produce the famous “helicopter” seeds, but since they tend to have the most colorful autumn leaves and spring flowers, it’s well worth the once-a-year sweep-up; a few male cultivars are on the market, however, which will never produce seeds.
It makes me happy that more and more people seem to becoming familiar with our local “tropical” fruit because it happens to be my favorite understory tree. Our only locally hardy, native member of this tropical family, Pawpaw certainly does belie its southerly origins with large leaves and a banana-like fruit. You won’t see them in stores (maybe farmer’s markets, if you’re lucky) because the fruit has a very short shelf life, but you can use it as you would a banana in baked goods and ice cream and therefore extend its enjoyment. As with many a fruiting tree, they will not develop fruit by themselves: cross-pollination must occur with another Pawpaw. Since many are seed-grown, this is easy (pick any other tree, because they’re all genetically different); if we can ever obtain the rarer cultivars, you’d need two different cultivars for pollination. Fruits are very nutritious (high in vitamins and minerals, proteins, healthy fats and amino acids) and taste primarily like banana with a custard-like consistency. Even if you aren’t interested in the fruit (and I sympathize, because I’m one of those people who dislike bananas) the tree makes a great addition to the shaded bed or habitat garden. Mine turns a rich golden yellow in fall. If they’re happy, they’ll sucker a bit, so give them space if you want to establish happy little colony.
A list of fall-color contributors would be lacking if there was no mention of Oak. There are so many great native species of Oak that it’s hard to generalize about them – some are very tolerant of dry, poor soils while others are better in wet areas – except to say that many young Oaks grow faster than people assume they would given their potential for great age. Their importance in the forest food chain is immeasurable, and they are deservedly well-known for being long-lived and great long-term additions to our yards and neighborhoods. Some species only develop shades of brown in fall retain their leaves into winter (much to the dismay of residents who miss their county leaf pick-up windows), but others turn scarlet or gold. Still, those curled, dry Oak leaves are good for something – their resistance to compaction is very useful in stuffing shelters built around figs and other tender plants with a fluffy insulating blanket during their first few winters.
Serviceberry / Shadblow / Juneberry
Smaller flowering trees can also contribute to the medley of autumn leaves, and in my opinion Serviceberries are one of the best. Their white spring flowers and early summer berries are worthy reasons alone to include them in a garden or landscape habitat, but their red and orange fall foliage should seal the deal. Multi-trunked forms have become more popular than single-trunked, but they are equal in their other traits and worthy of wider use. This would be another useful addition to the wetter spots of the yard, but they are adaptable creatures and easy to grow. The summer berries are delicious – though you may have to battle the songbirds for them – and you can use them much like blueberries in baking and topping delectable frozen treats. They also grow fairly quickly for a species that isn’t a big canopy tree, so you won’t have to wait as long for a mature look.
Last but certainly not least is our venerable Dogwood – several, actually, are native here – which offers a full year’s worth of garden interest. Dogwoods of all kinds are amongst the first trees and shrubs to show fall color and can hold that color for some time before shedding, and deeper reds and burgundy are their typical color range. Most familiar is the white-flowering species appropriately named Flowering Dogwood, but there are also Silky, Grey, Pagoda and Redosier Dogwoods that live here and put on an equally beautiful show, though their flowers look a bit different. Generally slower-growing than some other flowering trees, Flowering Dogwoods can still live for many decades and be garden-worthy the entire time. Birds adore all kinds of dogwood berries and will be grateful for a source of late-season food. I also love the rarer variegated forms for their summer interest and pink or orange leaf edges in autumn.