Fall Into Color

As the long, hot days of summer slowly come to a close, I anxiously await the arrival of my favorite time of year. In autumn, I am constantly captivated by the systematic transformation of a landscape from basic green into flamboyant hues of crimson, auburn, deep ochre and rich violet. Often, plants that spend the spring and summer lurking in the background of their flashy brethren suddenly burst onto the stage, while other seasonal showstoppers continue to demand the spotlight well into the third act. This dramatic color change accentuates ripening clusters of colorful fruit and the delicate beauty of intricate seed heads and puzzling seedpods. All of these plant features create a striking landscape in which the exquisiteness of plants cannot be denied.

With basic planning, and a little homework, this end of summer show can occur in most any landscape. The best fall color develops in areas where there is an obvious drop in day and night temperatures with the onset of autumn. Plants need this temperature cue to start the senescence process, which reveals the brilliant fall colors that have been masked beneath green pigment all summer. Where the autumn temperature drop is not as acute, look for plants that are proven to demonstrate brilliant color and unique fall features regardless of temperature change.

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Planning for fall color should not be limited to just trees. Shrubs, perennials, ornamental grasses and vines can further enhance your client's autumnal palette. Creating a beautiful fall mosaic using these colors in plants of various sizes and shapes can be easy if you know what plant material to look for. Although it was difficult to whittle my list of fall stunners down to just a few favorites, I did come up with some “best bets” for the different plant categories. Also, see the table above for other plants that merit serious consideration when selecting plants for fall color.

BEST BET FOR TREES

  • Acer spp. (Variable hardiness; mostly Zones 3-7)
    Maples are the quintessential tree for fall color with most of them turning yellow, orange or red. A number of cultivars for different species have been selected specifically for fall color. Red maple (Acer rubrum) has a number of such cultivars including ‘Autumn Blaze,’ ‘Autumn Flame,’ ‘Autumn Fantasy,’ ‘October Brilliance’, ‘October Glory’ and, of course, the ever-popular ‘Red Sunset.’ Maples range in mature size, so be sure to select one that fits your site.

  • Cercidiphyllum japonicum (Zone 4-8)
    Katsuratree require ample space, growing to 40 to 60 feet tall and 20 to 30 feet wide. There is a striking specimen of this tree on campus at Iowa State University and when it turns to a true, clear yellow each fall, it stops people in their tracks. Katsuratrees do best in moist, well-drained soils and may need additional watering during establishment.

  • Hammamelis virginiana (Zone 3(b)-8)
    Common witchhazel is an excellent small tree, reaching 20 to 30 feet tall and a similar spread. It has a loose and open growth habit and can grow in full sun to shade. The bright yellow fall color gives way to small, yellow, strap-like flowers in October and November.

BEST BET FOR SHRUBS

  • Euonymus alatus, burning bush (Zone 4-8)
    No discussion of shrubs with fall color is complete without burning bush. E. alatus. ‘Compactus’ grows to about 6 feet tall and the cultivar ‘Rudy Haag’ is a slow-growing dwarf variety to about 4 feet tall and as wide. Burning bush is a tough plant that can handle a range of growing conditions including poor soil and mild drought. The vibrant red fall color develops best when planted in full sun.

  • Rhus typhina, staghorn sumac (Zone 4-8)
    For naturalistic areas, or where you don't need a regular and reliable plant form, consider staghorn sumac. This sumac can reach a height of 15 to 18 feet with an equal spread. It tends to sucker profusely and creates a thicket of plants, so be sure to give it enough space. I do not recommend planting it in a “formal” area in the landscape. In addition to providing a full range of leaf color including gold, orange, red and maroon, the female plants produce upright fruit clusters on many shoot tips. These clusters turn a bright crimson red in the fall and persist well into winter.

  • Itea virginica ‘Henry's Garnet’, Virginia sweetspire (Zone 5-9)
    This underused plant provides outstanding reddish purple fall color. A bonus: The 3- to 5-inch long racemes of fragrant, white, late-spring flowers that last for two to three weeks. ‘Henry's Garnet’ is a cultivar that grows to 3 to 4 feet tall with a similar spread. Itea does best in moist, fertile soil, but is adaptable to full sun or part shade, has no major disease or insect problems, and is tolerant of low, wet sites.

  • Viburnum spp. (Variable hardiness; mostly Zones 4-8)
    As my favorite species of shrub, I cannot list just one viburnum. V. prunifolium (blackhaw viburnum), V. sargentii (sargent viburnum) and V. trilobum (American cranberrybush viburnum) all have great fall color and berry-like fruit that persist into winter. Blackhaw viburnum has red to purple fall color and bluish black fruit. Sargent viburnum and American cranberrybush viburnum have yellowish to reddish fall color and bright red fruit. All three are large shrubs ranging from 8 to 12 feet tall with similar spreads.

BEST BET FOR PERENNIALS

  • Amsonia spp. (Zone 3-8)
    The blue stars, including Amsonia tabernamontana (blue star), Amsonia ciliata (downy blue star) and Amsonia hubrechtii (Arkansas blue star), are famous for their clear yellow fall color. The narrow foliage of the downy and Arkansas blue stars gives these species the added bonus of creating an interesting textural contrast with other plants in the landscape. Blue stars are durable plants that do best in part shade and moist, well-drained fertile soil, but they can also handle poor soils.

  • Geranium sanguineum (Zone 3-8)
    Although bloody cranesbill doesn't sound like an attractive plant, this geranium is a great choice for fall color. This geranium reaches 6 to 12 inches in height and spread and grows best in full sun to part sun and can handle a range of soil conditions. The brilliant red fall color develops after the plant experiences a hard frost.

  • Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’ (Zone 3-8)
    Autumn joy sedum has thick fleshy leaves and grows to 1 to 2 feet tall. Like other sedums it can handle hot, dry locations and doesn't do well in soggy soils. The large flower clusters develop in late summer and turn a bronzy-red in the fall. The flower stalks can persist into winter.

BEST BET FOR GRASSES

  • Panicum virgatum (Zone 4-8)
    Common switchgrass is a major component of North America's tallgrass prairies and does well in hot, dry conditions. A number cultivars, ranging in size from 4 to 8 feet tall, are available in the nursery trade and many provide excellent fall color. Consider using ‘Hänse Herms’(burgundy), ‘Shenandoah’ (dark burgundy) and ‘Campfire’ (mix of orange and red).

  • Miscanthus ‘Purpurascens’ (Zone 4-8)
    Flame grass provides the most reliable fall color of all miscantus. It has an upright growth habit to about 5 feet, is cold hardy and blooms in late summer. Fall color is a bright orange-red color when the plant grows in full sun; a more muted version of the same color develops when the plant grows in part shade.

BEST BET FOR VINES

  • Parthenocisis quinquefolia (Zone 4-9)
    Virginia creeper is a fast-growing vine that easily grows 6 to 10 feet each year. It is tough and low-maintenance, and can be grown up a wall or trellis, or allowed to ramble across the ground. In fall it turns to a vibrant purple-red color. In addition to great fall color, the Virginia creeper also produces many berries in the fall. Birds devour these berries and often spread Virginia creeper seeds to other parts of the surrounding landscape.

  • Celastrus scandens (Zone 3-8)
    American bittersweet is an under-planted vine. It is a vigorous grower to 20 feet and will climb up most any structure. (Planting it in poor soil will slow down the plant's growth and may be a good management tool to consider.) The fall color is a greenish yellow, but the bright orange fruit with red seeds inside are what make this plant most attractive in the fall. It is dioecious and therefore requires both male and female plants in order to flower.

Allow your landscapes to flourish in the fall by adding one or two of these elements to encourage autumn colors.

Ann Marie VanDerZanden is a an associate professor of horticulture at Iowa State University (Ames, Iowa).

BOTANICAL NAME COMMON NAME USDA HARDINESS ZONE HEIGHT/SPREAD COMMENTS
Trees
Amelanchier arborea Downy serviceberry 4-9 15 to 25 feet/15 to 25 feet Small multi-trunked tree; great in residential landscapes; orange, yellow, rust fall color
Cotinus coggygria Smoketree 5-8 10 to 15 feet/10 to 15 feet Stunning pink-purple flower plumes in late summer; yellow, red, purple fall color
Stewartia spp. Stewartia (5) 6-8 Variable 15 to 20 feet/15 to 20 feet Attractive bark; appropriate size for most residential landscapes; most species have orange to scarlet fall color
Shrubs
Fothergilla major Large fothergilla 4-8 6 to 8 feet/6 to 8 feet Slow growing; needs winter protection in zone 4; yellow, orange and scarlet fall color
Hydrangea quercifolia Oakleaf hydrangea 5-9 6 feet/6 feet Coarse texture; white flowers turn to a pinkish-brown in fall and persist; purple, orange and red fall color
Spiraea japonica Japanese spirea 4-8 4 to 5 feet/4 to 5 feet Fine texture; can handle poor growing conditions; red and orange fall color
Perennials
Aconitum napellus Monkshood 4-8 3 to 4 feet/3 to 4 feet Grow in part shade; all parts of plant are poisonous; yellow fall color
Bergenia cordifolia Pig squeak 3-8 10 inches/10 inches Glossy green leaves turn reddish in fall
Epimedium spp. Barrenwort 4-8 10 inches/10 inches Semi-evergreen in warmer zones: yellow-orange fall color
Platycodon grandiflorus Balloon flower 3-7 2 to 3 feet/2 to 3 feet Clear, yellow fall color
Grasses
Sorghastrum nutans Indian grass 4-7 5 to 7 feet/5 to 7 feet Native to North America; yellow to burnt orange fall color
Schizachyrium scoparium Little bluestem 3-7 3 to 4 feet/3 to 4 feet Native to North America; yellow to burnt orange fall color

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