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Fall Dazzlers: 8 Trees and Shrubs for Brilliant Autumn Color

Now is the time to plan for immediate — and long-term — gratification

posted by Leslie Land, September 20, 2013 More by this author

colorful leaves of a staghorn sumac

Leslie Land, longtime “Garden Q+A” columnist for The New York Times, was a journalist, chef, garden consultant, author of two cookbooks, co-writer of two garden books and founder of the food, garden and foraging blog In Kitchen and Garden.


colorful leaves of a staghorn sumac
The colorful leaves of a Staghorn Sumac
iStockphoto/ThinkStock
The falling leeeeves, drift by the win-dowwww, the falling leeeves, of red and gold... 

For those of us of a certain age, it’s impossible to think about planting for fall color without this song as a soundtrack. But that doesn’t mean our choice of trees and shrubs has to be equally clichéd; there’s a lot more to it than maples, lovely though they may be.
 
I’ve been building a life list of unusual fall dazzlers ever since I started gardening, decades ago. Until last year, however, I was more or less content to just admire (rather than plant these trees in my own landscape). Living in the Northeast makes it easy to gorge on eye candy planted by someone else, especially if you spend a lot of time on the road during leaf-peeping season. But then last fall around this time, I finally took the plunge and bought a sourwood tree.
 
I’d been wanting one for years but had resisted, mindful of a severe shortage of empty garden space that called out for a tree. Then, overwhelming temptation: a nicely shaped specimen — on sale, no less. The spot it now occupies wasn’t exactly needy, but it was open to enhancement.
 
Sourwoods have an especially long bloom season, with sweeps of fragrant white flowers that start in mid- to late-summer and are followed by gray-white seed heads, which look almost like flowers themselves. The narrow, downward-turning leaves turn brilliant red and orange in fall. Bugs and diseases don’t bother them. And while they can grow into substantial trees in the mid-South, in Maine they’re at the end of their range and stay politely under 25 feet tall.
 
My new baby was just over five feet and rather sparse in the branch department. Yet small as it was, its graceful seed heads and deep swags of reddening leaves made it a star attraction. Every day it seemed to speak to me, saying, “You need more of this sort of thing.”
 
Who am I to ignore a plant when it’s giving such agreeable advice? Thus this autumn I’m on the lookout for a few choice specimens that are like the sourwood in that they’re (comparatively) small, and especially splendid in fall without looking too dowdy the rest of the year. 
 
Thanks (if that’s the word) to the sourwood, I have now transplanted one other autumn beauty from the looking list to the shopping list and put a couple more in the maybe column.
 
(MORE: Backyard Birds: How to Attract Them With the Right Flowers, Shrubs and Trees)

My Top Trees for Fall Display
 
Gotta Have It:
 
Heart-Leaved Disanthus (Disanthus cercidifolius): I love everything about this tree. It’s garden sized, typically doesn’t grow to more than 10 feet tall, and is happy in partial shade. The flowers are nothing to shout about, but the leaves are a constant joy: blue-green with other greens in summer, green and purple in early fall, then purple with yellow, red and orange, all in a glorious jumble, to close the foliage season.
 
Seriously Considering:
 
Forest Pansy Redbud: This shrubby little tree would be on the for-sure list if I could somehow put it on fast-forward. It’s striking in spring,  when the bare gray branches are festooned with clouds of shocking purple-pink flowers. And it’s just as splendid in fall, with every leaf tinted a slightly different jewel tone.

Unfortunately, it spends the summer thickly clothed in a rather flat burgundy so saturated it’s almost somber. Not my idea of a pansy, thank you very much, though the legions who admire red-leafed maples may feel differently about it.
  
Staghorn Sumac: I already have a nice specimen of Tiger Eyes sumac, a slender bush with plumes of leaves that emerge lemony chartreuse, then turn gold before going extremely orange in early fall. It fits neatly in one of the perennial beds and stays very well behaved, but it doesn’t have the sheer wow power of a big clump of its much hunkier cousin, the staghorn sumac. So if I can find a place for the staghorn to express its naturally hoggish (or perhaps the word is elephantine) tendencies, it will be planted there.
 
While I’m on the subject of hogs, here’s a warning: Beware the Winged Euonymus, aka burning bush. It looks like a sure winner: It’s comparatively modest in size, with curiously flattened stems and small branches that make it a winter standout — and of course there’s the flaming foliage that gives it its common name. In autumn, in the setting sun, a hillside covered with this plant is one of the most stirring sights nature provides.
 
Unfortunately, burning bush is way too good at covering hillsides to be good for the health of the forest. The equally brilliant but less invasive Enkianthus campanulatus is a much better choice if you want a bush that looks as though it’s about to speak to Moses.
 
Reasons to Go for It Now
  1. October is a prime tree- and shrub-planting month. Shorter, cooler days put less stress on leaves (and less stress on the person digging the hole). Soil is still warm enough to encourage root growth. And fall rains are likely to take care of a lot of the watering.
  2. You can see what you’re getting. Searching for specific trees and shrubs can be more of a project than planting them at this end of the growing season; most nurseries have more limited stock than they did in spring. But when autumn color is a plant’s most important attribute, it pays to buy one when you can see it at the height of that glory. Trees and shrubs that are famous for fall foliage are not uniformly fame-worthy.
  3. Any tree or shrub that “turns red” — or orange or yellow or whatever — will indeed turn, but individual plants can vary considerably.  Clethra (sweet shrub), for instance, can be a singing clear yellow or a dirty almost-ochre. Itea (Virginia sweetspire), another shrub renowned for its fall color, is always red, but “red” covers a lot of ground — or in this case, leaves — and not always beautifully. 
That said, even the most carefully chosen specimen will not be equally splendid every year, because the display depends as much on weather as the plant's capabilities. Midsummer heat and drought, for example, can damage leaves while they're still green, reducing the amount of color they’ll show when autumn comes. A strong wind after the color has started can blow many leaves away, and the tree or shrub is left looking pallid. Since weather is beyond the gardener's control, I think the best strategy is to think of a foliage tree as being like a vineyard: There's always something to enjoy, but some years are better than others.
 
I’m fairly sure this year’s wacky hot/cold spring is the reason my little sourwood scarcely bloomed this summer. I’m also sure the summer drought discouraged leaf production. It’s turning red, though, even as I write, and next year I intend to reward it by being more attentive to watering.
 
Protecting the flower buds from frost is probably beyond me, however, even though I’m not the only one who wants the fragrant blossoms. The bees are also eager to visit, or would be if they only knew. Sourwood honey is so delicious some people plant groves of the trees simply for that purpose. If they have any sense, they’re also selling tickets to the show when autumn rolls around.
 
 
 
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