Sunday, October 23, 2011

Native Fall Foliage - Orange/Red/Purple

The red leaves of autumn complete the pleasing trio of colors that humans seem to prefer: green (the evergreens), yellow and red.  Last week I talked about Yellow fall foliage - a group which ended up being quite big!  However I think that this group - the trees with predictable orange, red or purple foliage - is probably the one that gets the most attention.  The arrival of fall color predictably raises the general interest in trees like Sassafras and Sugar Maples.  In fact, nurseries should just plan to stock those in the fall.

Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii

As I said before, there is a lot of variation in fall color even for the same type of plant. For example, the Parsley hawthorn leaves shown above were the only two red ones I ever found; the rest of the leaves turned yellow. Differences can be attributed to many factors (and here is an excellent site to explain it):

  • Individual plant differences: This is how cultivars are developed. Acer rubrum 'October Glory' was a single plant that was selected for dependably rich red color in the fall.
  • Climate differences: Was it wetter than usual, drier than usual, cooler or warmer than usual where this plant resides in the days leading up to autumn?
  • Different locations: Some trees change color earlier in one location than another even when they are just a few miles apart.

Most people have learned at some point that chlorophyll is what makes leaves green. It is when trees stop producing chlorophyll that the "true" colors come out. Different trees have different amounts of the components that make the different fall colors: Carotenoids - Browns, yellows and oranges and Anthocyanins - reds and purples. So given those all those explanations, here are the “usual” oranges, reds and purples that I can expect to see in my area, starting with orange:

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is a predictable orange fall color tree, but there's a new kid on the block when it comes to screaming orange maples: Freeman hybrids whose parents are Red maple (Acer rubrum) and Silver maple (Acer saccharinum).  Names like Acer x freemanii 'Autumn Blaze' are apt indeed:

Acer x freemanii

Silver maple parentage shows in the leaves

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is another head turner. The bright orange leaves droop in the fall, making the tree rather distinctive (for me anyway) even when spotting it on the side of the road.  The leaves are also unique in shape - the number of lobes on the leaf can vary: no lobes, one lobe or two:

Notice the leaf on the left has no lobes

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) has variable color but I think that orange is the most likely color that I see.  Sometimes you can find good red color as well.  Another orange/red highlight on the side of the road is Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), flaming up the side of trees here and there. This one has a bit of yellow:

Amelanchier arborea
Poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans

I could save the best of the reds for last, but I think I'll show you the best first.  This is a Scarlet oak (Quercus coccineus) that is across the street from my house.  It turns red very late in the year (this picture is from an earlier year, it is still fully green right now) but the wait is worth it.  Notice how much more vibrant it is from the other trees around it.  I was thrilled to finally get some acorns from it this year - I have planted them in my yard (hope the squirrels don't find them).  The nice thing about Quercus coccineus is that it is also a fairly fast growing oak. 

Scarlet oak, Quercus coccineus

Red oak (Quercus rubra) has good color as well and I always enjoy spotting it.  If you want to see what the acorns look like, take a look at my post from last fall about acorns.  While it is early in the year for these leaves to change color, I found several examples near my house this year already:

Quercus rubra

Red oak, Quercus rubra

Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is a fairly modest tree until the red comes out.  Then people notice it.  The picture on the left below was in a business area - amazing, clear red.  I think it is probably a cultivar, perhaps 'Wildfire'. Wild trees are a little more variable, but I could not resist this picture of the changing leaves with the dark blue berries still present:

Nyssa sylvatica

Nyssa sylvatica

Another surprising tree with consistently good red color is Cornus florida, Flowering dogwood.  Here is a picture showing the good form of the tree and another showing the berries (a nice contrast):

Cornus florida

Cornus florida

Winged sumac (Rhus copallinum) with Persimmon (yellow)

Chances are you've seen sumac (Rhus spp.) growing on the side of the road.  With strong red color and large red fruit clusters, it is hard to miss.  We have at least two kinds near me.  I have Winged sumac (Rhus copallinum) in my own yard (this picture) and there is Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) on the roadsides nearby. 

Red maple (Acer rubrum) around my house turns yellow except for one tree in the front of the house that turns mostly red.  They are all wild trees.  It very variable and that is why I put it in as both yellow and red!  Predictable red color can be found in cultivars like 'October Glory'.

Red maple, Acer rubrum
Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), shown above, is another vine that has great fall color - even more predictable than poison ivy!  This one you will also see climbing trees on the side of the road.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) has a range of colors - I've seen pale yellow, orange (mixture of yellow and pink), pink, fuschia, almost purple.

Oxydendrum arboreum
Oxydendrum arboreum

Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is the only tree that I have that truly turns purple, but the coolest thing about Sweetgum leaves is that they come in so many colors on the same tree!  This picture does not do it justice, but perhaps it will give you an idea of what to look for on the roadsides this fall.

Liquidambar styraciflua
Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua


  1. Great post! It's so hard to pick a favorite, they're all so beautiful, but I love the Virginia Creeper. You don't even know it there in the summer, but now you can see it everywhere now, with the added bonus of berries for the birds. I'm not familiar with Black Gum, it looks quite nice too.

  2. Parsley Hawthorn? Parsley Hawthorn...YES! I think I had him for Latin in my second term at Cambridge.

  3. Yes, he was the one that gave out easy A's ....

  4. Awesome colors. I've never seen Sassafras but I love that soft looking leaf. Our fall has been really dry so many of our usual red/orange favorites turned brown instead. Our white oaks are about the color of the Sweetgum though.

  5. I wanted to mention how some white oaks (Quercus alba) can turn a beautiful red but it is too early here to get pictures of that. I see one finally today that is turning red and I gathered some of the acorns to toss out in my yard. Good genes!

  6. GREAT post on fall colors! Beautiful pictures as well.

    Julie, you really should get to know black gum--it is a beautiful tree that provides so much. I think it stands out in more than just the has deep green, glossy leaves in the summer and a unique branching structure in the winter, and, if memory serves, the bright green leaves emerge fairly late in the spring but really seem to stand out.

    Thanks for the picture of the branch with the berries. Although my dad had planted them on the property where I grew up, I'd forgotten WHEN the berries matured. I didn't remember it being in the fall. I've planted several on our property and can't wait until they are mature enough to bloom. I'm hoping I have plenty of females and at least one male, but I'll have to wait and see. Good to know that they will provide a late season food source for wildlife. :)