There are many shade trees, ornamental trees and shrubs with above-par displays.
In selecting 15 of my favorite fall-color plants, I realized that all of them are simply great garden plants of year-round beauty and interest. This is not a planting kit that every garden should have, but suggestions for individual plants that will enhance your landscape. Even if you had an acre or two for the entire lot, chances are your soil and shade conditions wouldn’t work for them all, nor would your overall planting design.
My list is far from comprehensive. It doesn’t include sumacs, for example, or crape myrtles or aronias or blueberry bushes, all of which can have spectacular coloration. One tries to curb one’s enthusiasm.
Be sure to check with your local gardening center or gardening expert on whether the plant is good for your area.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
Shade trees cast shade, but they tend to like their heads in the sun. When choosing a site to plant one, worry more about the eventual width than the height.
▪ Red maple (Acer rubrum): The sugar maple is the poster tree for fall color, but it is likely to be stressed by the heat and humidity of the Mid-Atlantic unless you’re in the mountains. There is a Southern version (A. saccharum subspecies floridanum), but its fall color is not as strong. Enter the red maple, a native tree valued for its fast growth, symmetrical form, smooth gray bark and gorgeous fall color. It is tolerant of poor and wet soils (conditions that lead to more surface roots). Somerset is one of three seedless introductions from the National Arboretum developed for long-lasting, bright red fall coloration and for resistance to a pest called the leafhopper.
▪ Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba): Putting aside its curiosity value as a prehistoric species, the ginkgo is also a handsome and durable tree. It is versatile, too, and can be used as a street tree, a garden specimen and a high screen. Ginkgos have lofty, open branches full of those distinctive fan-shaped leaves. The big issue with the ginkgo is its fruit - it’s messy, it smells, and it drops over several weeks in early fall. The fruit’s nuts are prized in some East Asian cultures, but if you or your heirs don’t want them, the answer is a male clone such as Autumn Gold.
▪ Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum): This is a fine-textured conifer with the unusual trait of dropping all its needles before winter. But before they are shed, the leaves shift from bright green to a burnished orange. The effect can be stunning when backlit by the low afternoon sun. The cypress is native to Southern bottomlands and looks best grouped in groves of at least three, if you have the space. In wet areas, the red-brown trunks form handsome buttresses and “knees,” but it is happy in average soil once established and watered during dry spells.
▪ Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica): Few hardwoods have as reliably stunning fall color as the black gum, also known as the sour gum or black tupelo. The foliage is especially bright and progresses from yellow to orange to scarlet and, finally, red-purple. It is a slow grower and matures to a medium-size tree. It likes moist soil and will take periods of inundation but not continuously wet soils. It is taprooted, and I’d prefer to plant a young container-grown plant rather than a field-dug balled-and-burlap tree. Given its finicky roots, some horticulturists believe it is better to plant in the spring, when the tree is in growth mode. A number of improved varieties have been developed for prolonged leaf color and leaf-spot resistance. In addition to Wildfire, look for Red Rage and Afterburner.
▪ Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea): Oaks tend to be subdued in their fall coloration, but the scarlet oak is striking for its glowing, deeply lobed red foliage. It does well in average soil and optimally in moist but not wet soils, growing as much as two feet a year. The scarlet oak is the state tree of the District, but it is hard to find in garden centers because its taproot makes it difficult to transplant. For the patient, Earth Sangha Wild Plant Nursery, in Springfield, Va., has saplings in containers. Nature by Design in Alexandria expects to have four- to eight-foot-high container plants in the spring, the optimum season for planting scarlet oak.
Ornamental trees are essential focal points and prized specimens in any garden, and their reduced scale makes them ideal for placement in city gardens, next to a patio, along a path or at points of transition in the landscape. All of them benefit from deft and careful pruning when young to develop a pleasing branch structure.
▪ Persian parrotia (Parrotia persica): As with other large woody plants, the parrotia grows as either a big, multi-stemmed shrub or as a small tree, with a single stem and low branches. Picking a tree form comes down to selecting individual plants in the nursery. Related to the witch hazel and with similar large oval leaves, the parrotia is a standout at this time of year, when the foliage turns yellow, orange and maroon. With age, the exfoliating bark of the parrotia becomes its other extraordinary asset, mottled in gray, green, brown and cream.
▪ Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida): The native dogwood is beloved for its large white blossoms of spring, but its fall show isn’t too shabby, either. The leaves turn wine-red in early autumn as a reassuring harbinger of fall and winter. Variety selection, location and care are vital in keeping a tree happy and healthy. Appalachian Spring is a superior variety selected for its resistance to anthracnose disease. Other named varieties in the Appalachian series offer protection against powdery mildew disease.
▪ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum): Japanese maples have beautiful and unexpected combinations of autumn leaf colors. The green-leafed varieties are among the most striking in their autumn coloration. Osakazuki is a classic variety, low-branched and spreading. The fall color is an intense crimson red.
▪ Sassafras (Sassafras albidum): Valued initially for its bark tea, sassafras is a handsome small tree that forms suckering thickets with time, making it useful for outlying naturalistic parts of a landscape. The suckers can be removed to keep a single specimen, however. The distinctive lobed leaf is a dark glossy green in summer, turning golden and then a rich scarlet in the fall. This is another taprooted native that is best planted as a young container-grown plant. It grows quickly once established.
▪ Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia): Related to camellias, the Japanese stewartia is valued for its fall color, elegant form and, with age, beautiful bark patterns. Individual branch structure varies, so this is one you should pick out at the nursery. Some horticulturists prefer to plant stewartias in the spring. The Korean stewartia is a closely related species and will do the job just as well.
Small to medium shrubs function as accent plants and are useful foils to perennials, but larger shrubs work as screens and, moreover, form part of the architecture of the garden.
▪ Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis): Witch hazels come in many sizes and seasons of interest. The common native species, H. virginiana, is big and twiggy and difficult to place in a small domestic landscape. The Chinese witch hazel is remarkably fragrant, but the species grows to 15 feet or more. Goldcrest is a named variety that reaches a more manageable 10 feet or so. Princeton Gold is a smaller version, growing to six feet, with rich golden fall color. That’s the one I’d plant.
▪ Fothergilla (Fothergilla x intermedia): The fothergilla is related to witch hazel but grows as a more compact and compliant shrub. Two native species are commonly planted, both with superb fall color. The large fothergilla can reach 10 feet in height. The dwarf fothergilla grows to three to four feet. Mount Airy is a hybrid that reaches approximately six feet and has a characteristically rich fall tapestry of orange, red and red-purple.
▪ Smooth witherod (Viburnum nudum): Most people know the fragrant Korean spicebush viburnum of April, but other, more refinedviburnums deserve greater use. This includes the smooth witherod. Winterthur is a variety selected for its compact habit and glossy leaves, which turn a wine-red in the fall. The fruiting display - blue berry clusters - relies on the placement of a second, non-varietal V. nudum.
▪ White enkianthus (Enkianthus perulatus): Why this handsome shrub is still quite rare in gardens is a mystery. The red-vein enkianthus, more upright and open, is easier to find. At maturity, white enkianthus forms a bush that is six feet in height and width, but mounded and compact. The autumn color is a brilliant scarlet. Related to blueberries and azaleas, it prefers rich acid soil in full sun to part shade.
▪ Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia): The oakleaf hydrangea is a workhorse of the shrub border, attractive in every season. The foliage resembles monster oak leaves, and the shrub in time becomes large and structural. People plant it for its white flower panicles, but in autumn the leaves take on a deep burgundy-red color. The named variety Amethyst, which grows to 5 feet by 6 feet, is one of several new varieties developed for their shorter stature, compact growth and leaf-spot resistance.