While there are some native plants that have multi-season interest (Hydrangea quercifolia is one in my area), most plants have one good season of interest.
Now is the time to appreciate the “in season” plants of Fall. These plants get hardly more than a passing glance all year until their showy fruits or leaves appear. Consider the modest “Hearts a Bustin’” shrub (Euonymus americanus) that has flowers so insignificant that some people swear they don’t bloom! Come fall, however, the fruits from those tiny flowers look like something from outer space: textured raspberry-colored pods open up to reveal bright red M&M looking fruits that dangle by threads.
Let me start with grasses and work my way up – I recently saw the amazingly showy flowers of Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) at Sweetwater Creek State Park and of course many people are now familiar with Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) which I think is one of the “poster children” for native plants – people are crazy about it. Switchgrass cultivars are more available at nurseries now – look for Panicum virgatum in a variety of sizes and even colors. Little bluestem cultivar Schizachyrium scoparium 'Prairie Blues' is also winning some fans.
Most people already know about Goldenrod (Solidago) which has a variety of species, including some very well behaved ones. Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks' makes a fantastic display, and I like to mix it with blue ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum) and Salvia greggii to make all the colors pop. Of course the many species of Asters catch attention now too – often covered with small daisy-like flowers in white and purple.
Native vines with eye catching fall color include the much despised poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). If it wasn’t so irritating, I know people would be cultivating it – it can be gorgeous. You can get similar colors, however, from Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) which has beautiful blue berries when grown in sun. Keep your eyes peeled for stunning examples of both these vines growing up trees on roadsides.
Stunning native shrubs include the Sumacs such as the Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum) in my yard and the very showy Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina). Native viburnums in general have great color, and I find the glossy leaves of Viburnum nudum almost without equal when they turn burgundy. Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) – shown above - and Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) are two rather well known natives that are promoted in nurseries for their fall color.
I once attended a lecture by a self-professed “dendrologist” (there’s a new word - it means one who studies woody plants) who exhorted the audience to look not just at the pretty forbs in the forest floor but to also “look up” to see the great woody plants that create the canopy and the mid-layers of the community. And during the spring and summer, I do that for I appreciate trees and shrubs very much. But come fall, my eyes are back on the ground – marveling in the variety of leaves that start to carpet the ground, a dazzling combination of shapes and colors. Given that now is a great time to plant trees, here are some of the native trees available in most nurseries that can have spectacular fall color:
Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) – shown here, Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), Red Maple (try Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’ for predictably good color), Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), even Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) can have outstanding burgundy leaves. Look a little harder and find Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), a summer blooming tree with fall colors in a range of red/orange/pink hues. Be sure to mix in some evergreen trees to provide a foil for those deciduous trees: native eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Wax myrtle (Myrica or Morella cerifera), American holly (Ilex opaca) or Foster/Savannah hollies (Ilex x attenuata) to name a few.
Come next fall, you’ll be enjoying the decisions you made THIS fall! If you need help finding a nursery that carries a good selection of native trees, check out the resource page on the Georgia Native Plant Society’s website: Sources for Native Plants