Trees for Fall Color

Craving more fall color? These 10 trees guarantee a good show
 

An ancient maple lights up the autumn scene on a farm near Aldie, Va.

Red maple

Gingko

Scarlet oak

Sassafras

Flowering dogwood

Japanese maple

Baldcypress

Persian parrotia

Japanese stewartia

The lack of rain and lingering summer warmth can diminish the fall color show. But even with a reduced display, the pageantry of this finale forms one of the sweetest garden moments of the year.

Some of your garden plants are going to present magical progressions of color whether you planned for them or not. But if you actively choose and cultivate autumn beauties, you can forgo that trip to New England and have your own show at home. All right, that might be a bit of a stretch, but the point is, there are many shade trees, ornamental trees and shrubs with above-par displays.

In selecting 10 of my favorite fall-color trees, 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 shrubs, for example, such as sumacs, or crape myrtles or aronias or blueberry bushes, all of which can have spectacular coloration. One tries to curb one’s enthusiasm.

SHADE TREES

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, orange and scarlet yo, 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 taproot-ed, 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. It is hard to find in garden centers because its taproot makes it difficult to transplant.

ORNAMENTAL TREES

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

Black gum

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, perhaps better in sometimes brutal Arkansas summers.

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