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Hardy Trees and Shrubs for Colorful Fall Foliage

posted on January 9, 2017

The autumnal transition of deciduous foliage from green to shades of purple, yellow, orange and red is one our most brilliant natural wonders. While “leaf peepers” will drive hours to scenic destinations in order to observe the dramatic displays, nearly any homeowner can add fall color to their own neighborhoods by planting the right varieties of trees and shrubs.

The charts below assort tree and shrub varieties according to the seasonal color of the foliage. For optimal success, be sure to consider other factors such as mature plant size, cold hardiness, light and soil needs before choosing a new tree or shrub.

Trees for Red Autumn Foliage

SpeciesFall Leaf ColorAdditional Comments
Black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)ScarletAn outstanding shade tree with exquisite shades of red fall color.
Maple, Red (Acer rubrum)RedA tree famous for its intense red fall color. A very popular cultivar, the Autumn Blaze maple, is actually a cross between red maples and silver maples. Autumn Blaze maples are highly adaptive and have a very fast rate of growth.
Oak, Red (Quercus rubra)Russet redAlthough the fall color in most oaks is more subdued than that of maples, red oaks are a still a great choice for late-season color.
Oak, Scarlet (Quercus coccinea)Wine redScarlet oaks are perhaps the best oaks for fall color. Unfortunately, they are difficult to successfully transplant.
Pear, Callery (Pyrus calleryana)Red - burgundyOrnamental pear trees provide three seasons of color: profuse white blooms in spring, glossy green leaves in summer and reddish foliage in fall.

Trees for Yellow Autumn Foliage

SpeciesFall Leaf ColorAdditional Comments
Aspen, Quaking (Populus tremuloides)YellowIn many states, the glowing foliage of this tree serves as a harbinger of autumn.
Birch (Betula spp.)Golden yellowWhile birches are best known for their white or exfoliating bark, they can also provide brilliant foliage displays. For fall color, yellow and paper birches are the best choices.
Elm, American (Ulmus americana)YellowNew cultivars that are resistance to Dutch elm disease are allowing this once-popular street tree to make a comeback in our landscapes.
Gingko (Gingko biloba)Golden yellowGingkoes (also known as maidenhair trees) have fan-shaped leaves which create a remarkable display when they reach their peak fall color. Plant only male gingko trees since female gingkoes produce an offensive-smelling fruit.
Linden, Littleleaf (Tilia cordata)Brown - YellowTwo excellent littleleaf linden cultivars include ‘Chancellor’ and ‘Greenspire’.
Maple, Norway (Acer platanoides)Brilliant yellowThis highly adaptable species is available in several cultivars, some of which have remarkable forms or colorful foliage in summer. Cultivars with purple or crimson foliage typically have poor autumn leaf color. Those with green foliage usually transition to bright yellow in fall. Plant with caution since some states consider Norway maples an invasive species.
Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)YellowA tall, stately tree which needs plenty of space to grow.

Trees for Orange Autumn Foliage

SpeciesFall Leaf ColorAdditional Comments
Maple, Sugar (Acer saccharum)Orange-RedThe bold seasonal displays of this tree are almost legendary, with leaves ranging from yellow to orange-red on the same tree.
Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)Orange-RedSweetgums, which can be easily identified by their unique star-shaped leaves, provide outstanding autumn color in various shades of yellow, orange, red and purple.

Shrubs for Colorful Autumn Foliage

SpeciesFall Leaf ColorAdditional Comments
Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.)Bronze - RedNot only can blueberries provide delicious fruit in the summer, they also boast flowers in spring and bright foliage in fall. Blueberries perform best in acidic soils.
Chokeberry (Aronia spp.)RedFor fall color, red chokeberry shrubs are considered superior to black chokeberries.
Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp.)Red - PurpleMany cotoneaster species have glossy foliage which further enhances their fall displays. Two excellent choices are spreading cotoneaster and rockspray cotoneaster.
Euonymus, winged (Euonymus alatus)Brilliant redPopularly known as a “burning bush”, winged euonymuses are widely planted throughout northern landscapes. Size and growth habit vary by cultivar.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)Yellow - RedDepending on the species, serviceberries can be grown as a small tree or large shrub.
Spirea, Goldflame (Spiraea x bumalda ‘Goldflame’)Bronze - RedA popular, low-growing shrub with foliage that transitions from orange in spring to yellow and green during the summer, becoming reddish-bronze in fall. Generally, goldflame spireas require very little maintenance.
Sumac (Rhus spp.)Red – BurgundyA tall, upright shrub that can be seen along highways in many northern states. Two species with good fall color include smooth and staghorn sumac.
Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)BurgundyAs its name implies, the foliage on this shrub resembles oak leaves. In addition to its great fall color, in the summer oakleaf hydrangeas produce large “cones” of flowers in summer which start out white and then darken to pink as they age.
Viburnum (Viburnum spp.)Yellow - RedMany viburnums have fragrant blooms and attractive fruit in addition to their seasonal foliage displays. Viburnum species with good fall color include Koreanspice viburnum, doublefile viburnum and American cranberrybush viburnum.

Autumn is not only an ideal time for viewing trees and shrubs, it is also a great time to plant them. Newly planted specimens benefit greatly from moderate air temperatures and warm soils that are typical of autumn. Indeed, the roots of most deciduous trees and shrubs will continue to grow into the surrounding soil long after they drop their leaves.

Root growth and overall plant establishment can be further aided by treating the root ball into a dilution of CULBAC® Plant Solution and water. Prepare the dilution by mixing 1 part of Culbac® Plant Solution with 500 parts of water (e.g. 1 1/2 teaspoons of Culbac® Plant Solution per 1 gallon of water). Dip the root ball into the dilution and allow it soak for at least 30 seconds just prior to planting.

By selecting trees and shrubs with attractive fall foliage color, we can add seasonal vibrancy to our yards and communities for many years to come.

autumn blaze maple

An Autumn Blaze maple (Acer x freemanii) in its fall glory. The vivid autumn colors of maple trees have made them extremely popular selections in urban landscapes. However, homeowners and neighborhood leaders should avoid over-planting trees of the same genus. Tree diversity is essential for maintaining a stable urban forest.

red oak

The foliage of a red oak (Quercus rubra) provides subtle, eye-pleasing coloration to the autumn landscape.

burning bush

As it transitions to its fall color, a winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus) appears to want to remind viewers that Christmas is just around the corner.

Sources

Dirr, Michael A., Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1997.
U.S. National Park Service, Norway Maple, updated 11 November 2010, accessed 1 November 2016.

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