Sunday, October 21, 2012

Dependable Fall Color

This is the dangerous time of year when it comes to driving – I have a hard time keeping my eyes on the road as I pass woody plants in their coats of fall color. Nature does a great job of creating colorful arrangements of red, yellow and orange in the wild landscape. Grape vines (Vitis spp.) winding through evergreen pines, hidden until now, reveal themselves with vibrant yellow leaves while wild sumacs (Rhus spp.) turn a brilliant red on dry ridges.

Oaks can have great fall color
You can recreate this color show in your own landscape by choosing trees and shrubs that are known for their fall color. Native plants have some of the best color – they are the plants coloring up the North Georgia mountains and creating beautiful vistas in State Parks. If you’re looking to identify some of what you see in the wild, you may want to look at my posts on fall color: the yellows and the orange/red/purples.

When selecting plants for your own landscape, decide if you’re looking for a particular color. Perhaps you already have a good selection of plants that turn red in the fall and you want to add some yellows. As always, evaluate your site conditions too – most plants that provide the best colors are full sun plants and many are large trees. Make sure you have the right conditions.

Parking lot red maples, likely 'Autumn Blaze'

Trees and shrubs that provide dependable red/purple color in the fall (all of these are medium to large trees unless noted otherwise):

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) has good color and is fast growing.
Red maple (Acer rubrum) cultivars like 'October Glory' and hybrids like Acer x freemanii 'Autumn Blaze'. The species red maple is quite variable in color and may not even turn red.
Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) species and cultivars like 'Wildfire' and 'Red Rage'.
Dogwood (Cornus florida) has amazing red color; it is a small tree and needs part shade.
Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) has a range of fall color from pinks to purples.
Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) is a shrub; look for cultivars like 'Merlot' and 'Henry's Garnet' for best color. 'Little Henry' is a dwarf form.
Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) is a family of shrubs; purchase cultivated plants and get both summer fruit and good fall color.

Dogwood on the left, Sourwood on the right

Sassafras has great orange color

Hickory (Carya) is the tall yellow in many wild areas
Trees that provide dependable orange color in the fall:

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is often overlooked until fall when the screaming fall color grabs everyone's attention.
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) has a great fall display as the tree changes from green to orange in a wave of color from top to bottom.

Trees that provide dependable yellow color in the fall:

Hickory (Carya spp.) is the tall yellow color in almost every beautiful roadside display. The deep butter yellow leaves remain on the tree a long time, gradually fading to brown.
Smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) has both interesting flowers and good color.
Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is a large shrub that has much better color than red buckeye. The yellow drooping leaves make a handsome display for several weeks.
Southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum) turns a soft clear yellow, quite unlike the orange of northern sugar maple. It is at home as an understory tree in the woods around me.

Bottlebrush buckeye

American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus)

Trees and shrubs that provide a mix of colors:

Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is not a tree that most people deliberately plant, but the kaleidoscope of colors on the same tree can make you appreciate the ones you have.
Chalk maple (Acer leucoderme) is a rather small maple with an attractive range of colors.
Viburnum (Viburnum spp.) shrubs such as mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) and blackhaw viburnum (V. prunifolium) have wonderful fall colors.
Fothergilla (Fothergilla major) is a spring blooming shrub that you can appreciate again come fall.
Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is handsome year round thanks to fall color and peeling winter bark.

Fothergilla major
Remember – a bit of green makes the colors pop so be sure to mix in a few evergreens like pines to complement your red, orange and yellow foliage.


  1. Unfortunately, our colors this year are not as showy as they could be, thanks to the drought this summer. There's more browns than usual, but the Sweetgums and Maples are still quite pretty.

  2. The trees on the rock outcrop trail at Panola Mountain have some nice color just now, the golds are magnificent.
    Glad you mentioned the Sweetgum, most people overlook it, but my husband and I love it in all seasons.

  3. ... Saw Forhergilla major on the campus at UGA yesterday and was wondering what is was.... It was just beautiful.