Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Last of the Leaves

Much of Georgia has had the first frost and most of the leaves have fallen from the trees that drop them. Still a few hang on and it’s actually no surprise to identify which ones they are. In the world of deciduous plants some drop their leaves earlier than others, and if you want a longer leaf show then choose carefully what you plant.

Oak leaves with yellow Southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum)

Red maples (Acer rubrum) are some of our showiest fall trees in Georgia, especially when considering some of the cultivars and hybrids available now. They are some of the first trees to show color, evoking sighs of admiration as they display brilliant orange-red hues. Then they’re gone, their leaves fluttering down in the first strong wind. Unlike his cousins, Southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum) colors and drops leaves much later in the season.

Hickories (Carya spp.) catch our attention next with their buttery yellow leaves. Peeking out from the edge of the woods, Sassafras (S. albidum) waves bright orange leaves, anxious to be noticed. Both hickory and sassafras are underused native trees that deserve more appreciation and thankfully they usually get it come fall. Now if only people would remember to buy them!

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is another fantastic fall favorite with a wide range of pink, orange and purple leaf colors. Each tree seems to be unique – it’s a hard one to describe.

A medley of oaks showing a range of colors and doesn't that pine tree set them off nicely?

After all those showy trees are done, it’s time at last for the oaks to show us what we’ve been waiting for! Reddish browns, yellow browns, deep reds and bright reds are all represented in the genus Quercus. These majestic trees offer fabulous last season color and every year I am grateful to live in an area that has such a variety of them. At a construction site near me I counted seven different species in just a short stroll around the wooded areas.

Especially showy oaks are red oak (Quercus rubra) and scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), but many others have their moments of greatness. Some species, like water oak (Quercus nigra), don’t display any red coloring at all but can be very attractive nonetheless. And if you like to squeeze all you can out of your leaves, you’ll appreciate their tardy leaf drop.

Water oak (Quercus nigra) sporting a mixture of colors

Other trees of note for keeping leaves as long as possible: sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and American beech (Fagus grandifolia). I know that a lot of people dislike the sweetgum balls but the tree really can have amazing fall color and the leaves hang on for a long time. Beech trees not only have late fall color, the young ones hold onto many of their leaves during the winter, and the show continues as the leaves fade from yellow to brown to the color of old lace over the months.

Sweetgum, late November color

So if you'd like to extend your fall color show, look around you and see what native trees are displaying late fall color. Then add those to your shopping list. By the way, late fall and early winter is a great time to plant trees in much of Georgia. 


  1. Beautiful~I love Water oak leaves.

  2. And if you want to see all of these trees in one place, take a stroll along the Beltline's Eastside Trail. All of he trees mentioned have been planted by Trees Atlanta in the Arboretum, or already existed there (like the Scarlet oaks on Three Tree Hill).

  3. A great post about how to plan for extended fall color.

    I was excited to see a southern sugar maple on our farm.

    A small tree that is great for very late fall color is the titi or swamp cyrilla.