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. Beverly, zone 6 eastern PA says:

    Inspiring photos!
    The fall colors of Oakleaf Hydrangea are high on my list, being visible to passersby, an 8 foot wide beacon of RED, RED, RED.
    A close second would be Itea, Virginia Sweetspire, which turns a lovely burgundy color here against an elegant green background of Black Bamboo.
    We’re wearing sweaters here today! Fall has its foot in the door.

  2. NancyH says:

    These are beautiful trees and bushes! I’m working on bringing some planning to bear on my yard after many years of “letting it happen” both before and since I arrived. I’m considering Amelanchier (serviceberry, juneberry, shadbush), but I don’t think I’ve seen it referenced in your posts. Seems to have good references, overall–nice flowers, berries, good fall color, pleasant shape–yet I don’t see many around. Any reason it’s not favored? [I’m going to make those potatoes!]

  3. Jason says:

    Thanks for the list! Bottlebrush buckeye is definitely on my wish list, but Korean Maple sounds mighty good. I have Spicebush, Flowering Dogwood, Cranberrybush Viburnum, and Serviceberry. Also some young Black Chokeberry, but those have been slow to grow so they don’t have much foliage to show.

  4. George Morrison says:

    Hi Margaret,

    I’d add another fall color small shrub to your colorful list: Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’. One commentator referred to it by its common name as Virginia Sweetspire. Henry’s Garnet is dwarf and takes some shade. It’s also a native and as the photo link shows, it produces quite a show.


    1. margaret says:

      You’re so right, George. I don’t do well here with Itea, but it’s a beauty.

      And Jason, Aronia (chokeberry) should have been on my list…my wonderful oldest plant got severed in half by an October snowload last year. I got some new babies!

      Thanks to you both for great suggestions.

  5. Tricia says:

    The Tiger Eyes sumac is so enchanting! Do you have a good source to buy one?
    My father was a botanist with a great love for the staghorn sumacs (and the ginko! and the bryophytes!).

  6. Tricia says:

    Adding to my comment, I am also looking for the Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’ that you recommended in a much earlier post – do you know of a good nursery I good find this and the Tiger Eyes sumac in the Columbia County NY area?

  7. Valery says:

    Here on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Osakazuki (acer palmatum) is a stunning show. I love this maple because it give three colours throughout the year – new leaves come in purple in the spring, turn green for the summer and then scarlet red for the fall. The nursery told me people would stop their cars to knock on the door and ask what kind of maple it was – and they DID! No matter where I live, I will always have one of these in the yard.

  8. Martha Pendleton says:

    We get great fall color from euonymus and pistache trees, as well as a variety of Japanese maples and viburnums. Our wisteria turns a beautiful
    golden color and we get good color from vitis californica “Roger’s Red” here in California.

  9. narf7 says:

    When we moved to our inherited property in rural Tasmania we inherited river views and 4 acres of overgrown, once beautiful landscaped garden. The shrubs had gone to pot, the garden was full of enormous weed populations and everything that had survived 20 years of neglect and a total lack of supplementary watering was parched and lean. The rhododendrons and azaleas that I previously thought were tender and precious were right there at the top of the survivors list and as we work our way through we are SO glad that we decided to study horticulture rather than art! We brought 900 potted plants (when you both study something there is no-one to temper your passion and our earlier efforts to propagate were not quashed!) with us and now, after 2 years, we are only just managing to get to the point where we can plant them into the ground. I just planted out a Nyssa sinensis and Nyssa sylvatica for their autumn colour along with a Gingko biloba and my little Aralia spinosa is next. We were given the Aralia because the nurseryman couldn’t get anyone else to buy it! I love this blog because its real. I love being able to take what you share and apply it directly to life on Serendipity Farm. Thank you for your incredible efforts and for giving us ideas to run with. Not too sure that we can find buckeyes here in Australia but if we can…I am going to get one! :)

  10. Betsy says:

    Beautiful colors! I love the Margaret-ism. My gardening to this point has been a large vegetable bed and a new herb and perennial vegetable bed this year. I started four years ago and this land was absolutely wild. We don’t even have pretty weeds! I was completely frustrated those first couple of years, but every year it gets better. I had to learn to accept the fact that I couldn’t tame four acres in a year or two and to just take it month by month and do what I can. I use the winter months to clean out old blackberry canes. I’m wearing so many layers of clothing to stay warm I don’t hurt!

  11. Linda says:

    These are beautiful. I also love my sephora japonica (pagoda tree). It’s such a bright spot in my back yard at this time of the year.

  12. Brenda says:

    I would add Chinese Pistache (brilliant yellow) and Mexican Buckeye (red with very interestingly shaped seed pods) to the list. We are very fortunate to be able to plant many Japanese maples to enjoy year round. Favorites are the coral barks. I am in Texas.

  13. Sieglinde Anderson says:

    In addition to all those listed by you, in my woodland garden here in Western NC, among the showiest fall color comes from native Sourwood (Oxydendron arboreum), Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica), and Sassafras (albidum). They, together with our native dogwoods, truly stand out right now among other small trees that are still green.
    Among small shrubs, I adore Spirea japonica ‘Little Prince’ which turns a beautiful bright red where leaves are exposed to sun on the top but maintains chartreuse green on the shadier interior. This creates a stunning picture against the deep green of dwarf forms of Chamaecyparis obtusa and Cryptomeria japonica.

  14. Sharon says:

    I picked up American Beautyberry not for its fall foliage, but the purple berries it bears. I put them in last year, this year they fruited. Gorgeous little clumps of purple that will last all winter or until the birds eat it all up.

    Another berry-bearing shrub that seems to do well on my property is the barberry relation “Heavenly Bamboo.” It hasn’t become invasive as the birds don’t seem to eat the berries – they’re there through spring when the plant flowers again. Works nicely on the shady east side of my house.

    My dogwood is brilliant red right now, and the ornamental cherry is not far behind.

  15. Craig says:

    Some great color choices! My blueberries planted last year are putting on their show now. Thank you for the different color choices. I espetially like the spicebush’s bright yellow. Perhaps I need to look into that beauty.

  16. Beth says:

    Beautiful! I’m lucky to have a few maples growing behind my property, which are beautiful right now. But I need to add some color, so thanks for the list!

  17. Mark says:

    Margaret, thank you for sharing. I just returned to gardening last autumn. In defiance of the homeowners association, I ripped out 50% of the grass in my front year and replaced it with a large raised bed and expanded others and no one is complaining. For the first time in years honey bees and monarch butterflies returned to the neighborhood. Unfortunately , so have hordes of spotted cucumber beetles that are devouring the mums I purchased from one of your resources and destroying the spectacular color display after I’d babied these plants through a stretch of 13 100+ degree days and the worst drought since the dust bowl.
    Thanks to you and your blog, one of my side yards now has several viburnum planted as I’ve begun a shrub row. Next spring will see the steep hillside that is my backyard “ungraded” and returned to shrub covered slope nature intended with spice bush, bottlebrush buckeye, dogwood and an assortment of other bird friendly seedlings from the Missouri Department of Conservation. Butterfly and hummingbird friendly perennials and annuals will fill in the spaces to keep erosion under control until the shrubs reach maturity. I’ve learned so much from your blog and this post will get me thinking about new places in the yard to introduce all this color.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Mark, for the very nice note — and wow, you have been busy! Love the ripping out of the grass especially. :) I’ll be here with more tempting plants, forces willing!

  18. Steve Auerbach says:

    Thanks, Margaret, for reminding us that there is beauty after the warm weather is gone. Here in south-eastern Massachusetts, we haven’t had a frost yet. My Benary’s Giant Zinnias and my wife’s Marigolds are still producing, but I guess all the perennials (except for the never-stopping Geranium ‘Rozanne’) are at rest. The best fall color is surely the Oxydendron arboreum, a small tree that has grown slowly over the years and leafs out late, but has brilliant red leaves now. I’ve got a pair of glossy Abelia flanking it- what a terrific shrub- easy to prune, flowers from July until sometime in November.

  19. The trees are pretty cool. One of my favorite is witch hazel for the late winter blooms and fantastic fall color in my garden now. I was very distracted by the beautiful chairs in a couple of the pictures. Do you have any information about them?
    Have Fun in the Garden!

  20. Greenwood Nursery says:

    Spicebush and Kousa’s are some of our fave fall color plants, too. Here in TN, Sourwood’s put on a fall show with their deep red leaves – a regional favorite.

  21. Alan Grossberg says:

    I was just taking pictures of three plants I have which are absolutely on fire: itea, enkianthus, and Japanese maples. They have excellent color most years, unless there’s an early frost. No frost yet here in Durham, NH, where I usually have it by October 15th. Unless you _must_ plant red-leaf Japanese maples because you love the color or the garden design demands it, the green-leaf ones are much nicer…more subtle April-September, and then a spectacular October-November encore performance.

  22. Nancy Dawson says:

    Having lived on the west coast of Canada for eight years, I grew to love the Japanese maples that grew in abundance. Now living in southern Alberta, I have missed them. We are borderline zone 4 , so I am wondering if that Korean maple would survive here. I tried a smaller maple and it died after about the fourth year.

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