12 trees and shrubs for great fall foliage color

IF I’M A PROSELYTIZER FOR ANYTHING, it’s for the idea of a 365-day garden, no matter where you live. A Margaret-ism: The garden never closes (even if your local garden center does part of the year). Woody plants—trees and shrubs—in particular can really brighten the fall. So while they’re heating up (and while even the garden center’s still open), I’m recommending some easy-care favorites you may want to tuck into your home landscape, too.

The trees and shrubs below are my most reliable for that assignment. I have many other woody plants that display good fall color—but only some years. Some magnolias do (such as ‘Ballerina,’ an early flowering fragrant white Loebner hybrid that I adore), though only most years.

Shadbush, or Amelanchier, would be another easy-to-grow good choice, a native with extra-early flowers and good fall color. Except for this: In my area, where Eastern red cedars and apple trees are both in long supply, conditions are therefore prime for the fungus called cedar apple rust to cause my shadbush (and other rose relatives) to defoliate early.  Oops.

So here’s my top-12 list (with links to their full profiles if I have one in the archives):

Acer pseudosiebodianum, Korean maple (Zones 4-7 or 8, about 20 feet high and wide). A Japanese maple lookalike, but with hotter fall color and greater winter hardiness. In your zone, perhaps Japanese maples can do the job, too, but I grow mine in pots to overwinter in the barn.

Aesculus parviflora, bottlebrush buckeye (Zone 4-8, at least 12 by 15, and wider where happy).  July flowers, a gorgeous mountainous shape and big presence, and late, vibrant gold autumn color (above) on a native Southeastern shrub.

Aralia spinosa, devil’s walking stick (Zones 4-9, to 20 feet high and suckering, forms a colony). Its well-chosen common name reflects the extra-spiny, cane-line structure. A favorite of me and the birds.

Cornus kousa, Korean dogwood (Zone 4 or 5-8, 20 by 20 or more, plus smaller cultivars). Another multiseason beauty (flower, fruit, bark, foliage), one of many dogwoods I count on in the garden through the year.

Fothergilla major, mountain witch-alder (Zones 5-9, 6-10 feet tall and wide). Another Southeastern native. This one won’t do its fall-foliage thing till late October into November here.

Hydrangea paniculata, panicle hydrangea (Zones 3-8, many sizes of cultivars, from several feet tall to 15 or even 25). I know, you don’t think of this for fall, but for its white-to-pinkish trusses of flowers July onward. But wow, when those aging flower combine with foliage that turns, too. The longer I garden, the more I appreciate this forgiving, long-lived creature.

Lindera benzoin, spicebush (Zones 4-9, 12 feet high and wide). Extra-late golden fall foliage on a native shrub that wildlife likes, too.

Rhus typhina Tiger Eyes (its formal name is ‘Bailtiger’), the gold-leaf cutleaf staghorn sumac (Zones 3-8, about 5-10 feet high and suckering).  People always ask me about it at spring tours.

spiraea thunbergii ogonSpiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon,’ gold-leaf spirea (Zones 4-8, 5 feet high and wide). Extra-early white blooms and then gold foliage all spring and summer, turning a beautiful butterscotch color in fall and persisting till Christmas before it drops. True!

Stewartia pseudocamellia, Japanese stewartia (Zones 4 or 5-7, 25 or more feet high and wide). Peeling bark, summer flowers, and hot fall foliage on this one, and a great overall structure in the winter landscape.

Vaccinium angustifolium (lowbush blueberry, Zones 2-5, to 2 feet high) and Vaccinium corymbosum (highbush blueberry, Zones 3-6, up to 12 feet high and wide). Blueberries for you and the birds following early flowers, and preceding some of the hottest red fall foliage anywhere.

Viburnum species, including V. plicatum tomentosum (doublefile viburnum, Zones 5-8, above detail) and others such as carlesii, cassinoides, dentatum, nudum, opulus, lentago and more.  I’m viburnum-mad (and so are the birds). Investigate this genus if you have not.

WHAT FALL COLOR are you enjoying from trees and shrubs in your garden now, or do you expect to start glowing in the weeks to come?

  1. Marybeth says:

    Oxydendron has to be my favorite small tree for fall color. Have had mine for many years and it never seems to get much bigger so it is safe to squeeze it in somewhere!
    Wish I could post a picture of it.

  2. Poulsbo Garden Lady says:

    Hi Margaret,
    We are having a very wet fall here in the PNW after a very warm and dry summer so it’s interesting to note which trees and shrubs have been able to hold onto their colorful leaves through the wind and rain. In my garden, the panicle hydrangeas are gorgeous…deep red leaves. In the same border my two oakleaf hydrangeas are also magnificent…still putting out new flowers if you can believe it along with all the fall color on the same bush. Neighbors have been stopping to admire my smoke tree which seems to hold its leaves longer than most..genus cotinus…the one that blooms green in spring…I have a purple one too that doesn’t provide the beautiful fall color. My new favorite for fall color is Viburnum Wentworth trilobum…cranberry bush…Just gorgeous! The maples all did their thing with my Korean maple showing the best color. Thanks!

  3. Marilyn says:

    Nyssa sylvatica (sour gum or tupelo) is one of my favorite trees for fall color, along with the sourwood (Oxydendron) someone else mentioned, sumac, crepe myrtles, dogwoods, Japanese maples, sweet gum, and hickory. For fall color in shrubs, bottlebrush buckeye is the favorite, but fothergilla, calycanthus, and amsonia, if you could call that a shrub, also light up my yard. And of course the fall blooming camellias, although the color is from the flowers not the foliage.

    Re: bottlebrush buckeyes, I apparently have two different varieties, that bloom a month apart in the spring, and color up in the fall a month apart. They are growing in the same soil and amount of sun and look identical except for that. Just purchased from different places. I wonder if the later one is from northern stock? Has anyone else experienced this? I’m in zone 7B, Raleigh, NC. Has anyone had any luck starting bottlebrush buckeye from cuttings that they could tell me the best time of year to try? I’d like more of the late blooming one (June here).

  4. Roger Giovinazzo says:

    I have hydrangea paniculatas and oak leaf. My oak leaf fall color is way cooler. Was surprised to see it omitted. Love the fothergilla and tiger eye sumac.

      1. margaret says:

        Great additions, Alan — I should mention the oakleaf, which I only have two plants of and always forget about. Silly me!

  5. Karen says:

    Love your suggestions of your favorite fall trees/bush for color. I would be interested in the size pots that you planted them in. Size matters. Thanks

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Karen. Most of the plants mentioned in the story are big creatures, and growing in the ground. I do have some Japanese maples in pots, and they get good fall color. The pots are the biggest I can find and have to be moved on a hand cart (even that is hard to manage). The rims are as high as my knee to mid-thigh (depending on age/size of plant), and from 24 inches diameter to maybe 30. BIG!

  6. Chris Baswell says:

    Oak-leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) in any of its many cultivars. It turns a reliably rich deep wine red in late fall. As with most hydrangeas, its cone shaped flower heads hold for a long time and turn shades of pale pink or green in late season, finally tan which goes nicely with the colored leaves. Even after leaf drop, which can be quite late, the peeling bark of older specimens is beautiful. And since it’s a bit slow to leaf out in spring, you can grow early bulbs beneath it, and they’ll be dying back by the time they’re shaded. It’s a wonderful shrub.

  7. Lacey says:

    I can’t justify digging up my perfectly healthy dogwood to replace it with a kousa variety, but I’d sure love to! What beats a dogwood with gorgeous, edible fruit?

    This is the time of year that my sycamore grove shines; the massive leaves are mostly gone and the peeling, white bark saves the darker, wet corner of my back yard.

  8. C.J. says:

    On the subject of color: can you tell me why some trees change color from the top down while some others change from the inside out?

    1. margaret says:

      “Poison sumac” is a different plant from the many garden varieties of sumac. I like Rhus typhina ‘Laciniata,’ the cutleaf staghorn sumac…a great bird plant, too (lots of red “berries” in fall and winter for them to eat). Poison sumac is Toxicodendron vernix — not in the genus Rhus with the ornamentals I like. Another example of how confusing common names for plants can be.

  9. Kari Ronning says:

    Itea virginica (sweetspire) ‘Henry’s Garnet,’ ‘Little Henry,’ Merlot’ turn deep red colors in late fall, with leaves holding on till early winter in my midwest z 5

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