By Paul James
Looking for trees and shrubs that’ll produce jaw-dropping, car-stopping fall color? Well after careful consideration and discussions with several fellow plant geeks whose opinions I respect, I came up with a list of three trees and three shrubs that’ll do just that. And here they are.
This ancient conifer deserves a sunny spot in every yard. It’s beautiful throughout the growing season, but in fall its maidenhair fern-shaped leaves turn an intense, glowing yellow which, when backlit by the sun, are a sight to behold. Gingkoes can get quite large – as in up to 75 feet or so – but they grow very slowly, especially during the first couple of years after planting. However, much smaller Ginkgoes are available, including the magnificent ‘Jade Butterflies,’ which tops out at 12 feet, and a dwarf called ‘Mariken,’ which grows to about three-feet tall.
Ginkgoes are tolerant of a wide range of soil and pH conditions. And you can take comfort in knowing that nurseries sell only male trees (the female produces fruit that is unbelievably stinky.)
The native Tupelo is another outstanding choice for fall color, but unfortunately it isn’t that well known in this area. Growing to roughly 30- to 50-feet tall, the Tupelo thrives in wet soil and yet once established is actually quite drought tolerant. Its bark has thick, blocky ridges that give it the look of alligator skin, which I love. But the real payoff comes in fall when its leaves turn red, orange, yellow, and purple. Females produce small fruits in winter that birds adore.
Tupelo colors up best in full sun, but it’ll tolerate some shade. What it won’t tolerate is alkaline soil.
This tree is well known in our neck of the woods, and with good reason: it grows well just about anywhere you plant it so long as the soil drains well and it gets plenty of sun. What’s more, it rarely bothered by pests or diseases, and it’s heat and drought resistant. Chinese Pistache will grow at a moderate rate to around 30-feet tall and 20-feet wide. Fall color is variable – yellow, orange and/or red – and positively beautiful.
When young, the Chinese Pistache is often called an “ugly duckling” because of its weird branching patterns, but as it matures it develops great symmetry.
A shrub in the genus Euonymus, this is one of the most appropriately named plants of all, for in fall its leaves are ablaze in an intense scarlet red. This is a sensational accent shrub planted among evergreens, and is equally striking when planted en masse. The dwarf form is perfect for smaller properties, topping out at around four-feet tall and wide.
Easy to grow in well-drained soil and in full sun.
Again, not so well known but worthy of planting in any garden, this is one of my absolute favorite shrubs. Fothergilla is prized for its unusual and fragrant spiky-ball flowers in early spring and its exceptional yellow-orange-red fall color. Easy to grow and bothered by few if any pests and diseases, this may well be the best shrub you’ve never heard of.
Grows best in moist soil and in sun, but appreciates afternoon shade.
I’ve raved about ‘Henry’s Garnet’ Sweetspire in the past, and I do so again now because it definitely deserves to be on this list. Lime green leaves in spring are followed by panicles of white flowers that linger for weeks. The leaves darken a bit in summer and in fall turn a brilliant scarlet red and purple. Even in winter, the reddish stems of this shrub are of interest.
Sweetspire thrives in moist soil but can handle drier conditions as well. Afternoon shade or dappled light throughout the day is ideal.
Sure, there are many, many more trees and shrubs that I could add to the list, but assuming you’re interested in giving your place a pop of color this fall, I wanted to simplify the decision-making process. And the simple truth is, you can’t go wrong with any of those on the list.