Fiery reds, burnt oranges and brilliant yellows evoke regional images of fall. The New England states are famous for the intense oranges and reds produced by the native maples, while brilliant yellow defines aspen groves enveloped within the dark-green conifer forest of the Rocky Mountain West.
I don’t live in either of those regions, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate fantastic fall color. I have found that even in Kansas, with a few well-selected plants, the garden can positively glow.
When considering plants with fine fall foliage, oaks, maples and burning bush quickly come to mind, but there are many less common species that gardeners often overlook. If you are interested in coloring your late season landscape, consider one or more of these selections.
A number of different serviceberry varieties provide great choices for landscape use. Some of these will fit into the shrub category, and others are considered small trees. The berries produced by these plants are delicious, and so is the fall coloring. Gold, orange and red all describe the hues this time of year. My favorite tree selection is ‘Autumn Brilliance’ (Amelanchier x grandiflora), which will grow to a height of 20 feet. This tree can be grown as a single-stem specimen with the help of occasional pruning since it periodically sends up sucker sprouts from the base. It can be grown in the USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9.
About the same size, American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) features fall coloring similar to the serviceberry. The American smoketree has the smokelike plumes of flowers for which other, more easily recognized smoke-trees are known. This plant is extremely underused because its purple-foliaged cousins get better press. But this is a terrific, slower-growing small tree for Zones 4-8.
The Persian parrotia (Parrotia persica) is a medium-size landscape tree that will add interest not only in the fall but all season long. Parrotia will grow to 35 feet tall with a rounded habit. This tree’s new foliage emerges purple, turns to dark green during the summer and then develops scarlet-orange hues in the fall. It is not the easiest plant to find in nurseries, but if you garden in Zones 4-8 and can find one, give it a try.
Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is a large tree (up to 50 feet tall) with a narrow pyramidal shape that provides stunning fall color. A solid, brilliant red can be expected from this plant each fall. Black gum is somewhat difficult to transplant because it has only a few large roots that tend to go straight down, but after the tree is established, it grows well in both wet and dry conditions. Black gum will grow in Zones 3-9.
Maples are justifiably famous for fall color, and here’s one that makes an excellent addition to a landscape that only has room for a smaller tree. Trident maple (Acer buergerianum) is a small, rounded maple that grows to 20 feet in height. The small foliage is glossy green throughout the summer, changing to yellows, oranges and reds dispersed among the crown. This would be an excellent patio tree in Zones 5-9.
When you think of barberry, you probably don’t think of fall color, but several varieties provide late season interest. ‘Kobold’ and ‘Emerald Carousel’ are two green-leaf varieties that show off in the fall. ‘Kobold’ will grow to 2 feet tall with a slightly larger spread, and ‘Emerald Carousel’ is nearly twice the size. The foliage on both of these varieties turns orange late in the season, which highlights the bright-red berries. I won’t go as far as to call the fall show spectacular, but barberry is a nice colorful bush that’s extremely durable in Zones 4-8.
Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’) probably needs a good public relations person to come up with a more marketable name before it will become a garden staple. It is, however, a great plant for the landscape if you have room for a larger shrub that can grow up to 8 feet tall and wide. White flowers in the spring, glossy green foliage all summer, followed by bright red berries and crimson red foliage in the fall in an extremely durable package make this a splendid addition to a low-maintenance landscape. The plant sends up some suckers that you can let go or prune, depending on the look you are going for. Chokeberry will do well in Zones 4-9.
Fothergilla, either the dwarf (Fothergilla gardenii) or large (F. major), is a shrub that will provide a combination of reds, oranges and yellows at the same time each fall. Dwarf fothergilla will grow to 3 feet tall and wide, while large fothergilla will grow to double that size or more. Both species can grow in full sun and light shade in Zones 4-8.
If you have ever spent a fall in the central portion of the United States, you have likely seen one of the most amazing fall coloring plants: staghorn sumac. This plant grows 8 to 10 feet tall, in colonies that can spread widely along timberlines and unkept grasslands. In fall, its leaves become deep orange to crimson red. Some staghorn sumac selections are suitable for use in the landscape, but unfortunately, because of its size and tendency to spread, the plants are difficult to use in the average landscape.
‘Gro-low’ sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-low’) is a selection of fragrant sumac that grows 2 feet tall with a spread up to 8 feet. The rounded foliage is lustrous green through the growing season, turning to colors similar to its cousin the staghorn in fall, but it isn’t quite as spectacular by any measure. This sumac will grow just about anywhere in the United States: Zones 3-9.
In the northern part of Kansas, I have difficulty keeping nandina (Nandina domestica) healthy coming out of the winter. But if I lived farther south, ‘Fire Power’ nandina would be a must-have in my garden for fall color. ‘Fire Power’ nandina is a small, bamboo-like plant sometimes sold with the common name: heavenly bamboo. Clumps will only grow to 2 feet tall and wide at the maximum. Nandina’s foliage is lime green during the summer and, in the fall, it turns to a fire-red color that continues to intensify through winter. Nandina will grow in sun or shade and prefers moist soils. Unfortunately for us more northern gardeners, it grows best in Zones 6-9.
In addition to the 10 selections mentioned here, countless other plants can contribute to the fall color exhibit in your landscape. All it takes is a little investigation to find them and a little experimentation to see how well they work. These plants don’t make it to the top of many fall color lists, but they all are definite winners.
Mike Lang is a lifelong Kansan, and he is currently the landscape manager for a 1,000-acre university campus by day and caretaker of his own quarter-acre piece of the world the rest of the time.