While pansies and chrysanthemums are producing multitudes of flowers, arguably the most impressive display lies in autumn leaves. Rich and brilliant hues hidden all season burst forth from trees and shrubs and give the garden that last bit of warmth and energy before winter sets in.
Trees are certainly the best-known landscape plants for fall color, and several species have a veritable confetti of hues in their canopy. The most widely recognized are the maples, with sugar, red, Japanese, and the trifoliate maples all providing brilliant shades of red, scarlet, orange and yellow. The familiar crape myrtles have a similar color range. Less widely known — but equally deserving — are Persian parrotia and sweetgum with plum tones added to the spectrum above. Serviceberries and hawthorns provide smaller-statured alternatives with similar colors of plum-red and orange-yellow.
For somewhat more single-colored options, consider an oak tree. Scarlet, pin, or red oak are favored for their intense scarlet and russet-reds. Black tupelo (a.k.a. black gum) and sourwood also explode in bright red while the leaves of flowering cherries are more of a bronzed red. Dogwood and franklinia each have red to wine-colored fall foliage, with a more purple flush on white ash. Stewartia boasts wine-red to orange; dawn redwood, a deciduous conifer, turns coppery-orange; and witchhazel turns red-orange or gold-orange, depending on the variety. Katsura colors are almost apricot-yellow with a reportedly spicy scent. Beech leaves typically fade to a soft golden-brown or tan as they persist into winter. Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), a dominant tree in our native forests, sports golden yellow fall foliage. Other regional natives such as yellowwood, fringetree and redbud also turn gold to soft yellow. Ginkgo and whitebarked Himalayan birch flush bright yellow while green ash and linden yellows are more muted.
Many shrubs also provide excellent fall color and should be considered for adding interest beneath trees or in tighter spaces around the yard where they can be appreciated at eye level. Burning bush, perhaps the most recognized for this, is far from the end-all and be-all of shrub fall color. If you love reds, try chokeberry, cotoneaster or nandina, the latter of which may even keep those colorful leaves all through the winter. Oakleaf hydrangeas also hold their plum and wine-red tinged leaves late, often into early winter. Yellow-oranges and red-oranges arise from spiraea and fothergilla. The plum overtones in some varieties of deciduous azaleas are an added bonus. Weigela can carry a variety of colors also, most notably in the cream-and yellow-variegated forms, which become blushed with pink and orange. For something really unusual, try vitex, with leaves that turn mocha-brown with a hint of purple.
Try spicing up the partly shady corners of the garden with the colors of clethra (yellow), itea (burgundy to scarlet), viburnum (plum, wine and scarlet) and leucothoe (evergreen but flushes plum-burgundy). And although most bigleaf hydrangeas don’t have impressive fall color, try the new ‘Lady in Red’ with the promise of burgundy-red infused leaves with red veins. Vines can give you unexpected fall color too – try crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) in sun, where its semi-evergreen leaves turn deep plum with rosy undersides, or climbing hydrangea in shade with its yellow fall foliage.
No matter which colors or combinations suit your tastes, autumnal colors usually show best when mixed with evergreens or used against a green backdrop. Notice how the colors of the fall woods really stand out with the scattering of olive-green and blue-green pines and dark green hollies and hemlocks. Garden conifers such as pines, spruces, junipers, falsecypress and yews and broadleaf evergreens like hollies, cherrylaurel, boxwood and others will greatly enhance fall foliage colors when used in a mixed planting. And you can still mix foliage textures – tuck in perennials where shrubs would be too crowded…grasses with their fine wispy blades, the incised leaves of geraniums, the low, rounded leaves of plumbago and others will color up nicely in autumn. So plant for fall foliage color in the garden and you will be rewarded with a display of color rivaling that any bloom!
By Miri Talabac, Woody Plants Manager