Discover six of the best native shrubs and trees for fall foliage.
What plants are the most reliable fall performers? It depends. First, not every seedling of every plant species is identical - in other words, genetics matter. Where you have placed the plant in your garden also influences the development of color. The sunnier locations will most often translate to better color development. For the same reason, each year will have its individual vintage depending on the temperature, sunlight and rainfall patterns of the previous summers. Nearby high-intensity street lights can also affect color.
Taking these factors into consideration, you can still expect a colorful performance from numerous species native to our continent. Here's a partial list:
American smoke tree (Cotinus obovatus)
The American smoke tree is an unsung relative of its Eurasian counterpart, Cotinus coggygria. Known colloquially as the chittam tree, it was driven to near extinction during the Civil War as the Confederate forces scoured for sources of dye (the bark of Cotinus yields a hardy yellow pigment). Though the broad, papery-textured leaves - on a small tree that ultimately rises to 30 feet tall - are green throughout the summer, there is hardly a more spectacular specimen to consider for autumnal effects. It provides an effulgent display of corals, reds and yellows for many weeks in mid-autumn while also demonstrating commendable drought tolerance.
Red maple (Acer rubrum)
The so-called red maple is probably responsible for more of the blaze of the New England forest in autumn than its more celebrated cousin, the sugar maple. Acer rubrum is a denizen of very damp places in its native environment, but it's hardly dependent on those conditions. Indeed, because of its ability to live in oxygen-deprived soils, it is a street tree of choice, thriving in compacted, nutrient-poor soils. Due to its strapping disposition and unwavering ability to transition to high-temp shades of red in autumn, there are many cultivars available. 'Columnare' is rigidly narrow and upright, fitting nicely into tight situations. The chunkier cultivar known as 'Red Rocket' also colors spectacularly. The late-winter red flowers of this species are an unexpected bonus.
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
In spring, the sap of the American sugar maple, concentrated to syrupy confection, has dribbled across many a flapjack. The sugar produced from this tree was used as legal tender in Quebec as late as the 1930s (the leaf adorns Canada's flag). The autumn colors of this tree, ranging from vibrant yellow to brilliant orange to mind-bending red, go beyond vibrant. There are superb selections, from the radically narrow beanpole known as 'Newton's Sentry' to cut-leaf finery in 'Sweet Shadow.'
Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis)
The witch hazels of our continent received their common name from water diviners of the 17th century. Arriving on our shores in need of a new source of divining wood (hazelnut, Corylus, had been traditionally used in Europe), the diviners decided that Hamamelis, whose leaves are similar in appearance to the European hazelnut, filled the niche. When compared to its Asiatic cousins, the spidery yellow to reddish flowers of the American species pale. The multistemmed tree or large shrub, however, is unparalleled in its end-of-season foliage, alighting in shades of burgundy, copper and coral.
American sumac 'Tiger Eyes' (Rhus typhina 'Tiger Eyes')
This is a dioecious (literally meaning two houses) shrub, referring to the fact that separate plants bear either male or female flowers. On female specimens, knobby cones of deep-red fruit (refreshingly tart to the taste and under-appreciated as a font for 'lemonade') ripen in autumn and are a sensational complement to the highly textural pinnate foliage as it shifts from green to high-voltage red and orange in late September. A new cultivar called 'Tiger Eyes' offers brilliantly colored golden, filigreed yellow foliage during the summer and an end-of-season spectacle. Rhus typhina is a responsible water consumer.
Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)
The oakleaf hydrangea has a particularly large following throughout much of the U.S. due to its large, lobed, highly textural leaves and sensational mid- to-late summer blossoms of ivory white. There are many good selections, some with very large flower heads, including 'Snow Queen' and 'Harmony,' and even one with fully double flowers, 'Snowflake.' If grown in shade, the foliage will generally not color well. If cultivated in full sun, however, be prepared for a superb performance: glossy shades of burgundy and red appearing in mid autumn and lasting for many weeks. Though popular gardening literature recommends this species be treated as a woodland plant, if it can be provided even moisture throughout the year in a bright sunny location, the autumn color will equal the entertainment value of its flowering season.