25 Plants and Trees for Winning Fall Color

Welcome autumn with a blaze of garden color.

September 17, 2020

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Mariachi 'Salsa' Helenium

When designing a garden for fall color, select plants that will strut their stuff at different times in the season to keep the show going strong. Helenium autumnale is also known as sneezeweed. It’s a full-sun perennial that starts blooming in late summer and continues through early fall. It makes a great opening act for an autumn display. Helenium is a native plant, and Mariachi 'Salsa' is a shorter variety, topping out at 18 to 20 inches. Its blossoms open in traditional fall hues of orange, red and gold. Hardy in Zones 3-9.

Autumn Crocus

If you love spring crocus, check out its fall flowering cousin, autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale). Actually a lily, this plant grows leaves in spring that die back in early summer. Blooms open in early to mid-fall when no leaves are present. Autumn crocus does best in full sun to part shade and grows 7 to 12 inches tall. Plant these crocus bulbs in mid to late summer, tucking them among hardy geraniums, creeping thyme, ajuga or hardy vinca — plants that can help hide the dying leaves in early summer. Hardy in Zones 4-8.

Learn More: Crocuses Pack a Powerful Punch

New England Aster

Asters bring the color in early fall, opening blossoms in many hues, including pink, purple, red and rose. New England aster is a native plant, often found growing in meadows. 'Pink Crush' is a newer variety that helps tame the height of the native plant, which tends to grow so tall it flops. This variety glows with bright pink flowers that literally cover the 20- to 24-inch-tall plant. Plant it in full sun. Hardy in Zones 3-8.

Learn More: New England Asters

'Autumn Fire' Sedum

Tall flowering sedums act like a shrub in a planting bed, growing 24 to 30 inches tall and up to 24 inches across. An improved version of the classic 'Autumn Joy' sedum, 'Autumn Fire' boasts a tighter growth habit, thicker leaves and brighter pink blossoms. Flower buds appear in summer and slowly develop into open blooms, progressing through several color changes along the way. Bees and butterflies can't resist the flowers, while birds flock to faded blooms in winter for seed. Hardy in Zones 3-9.

Learn More: Sedum

'Autumn Spire' Red Maple

'Autumn Spire' red maple (Acer rubrum) is an upright, narrow accent tree that delivers the traditional beauty of red maple in a size that fits any yard. Trees grow 50 feet tall and 20 to 25 feet wide. This maple is drought tolerant once established and holds its own where winter thermometer readings linger below zero. Expect trees to live 80 to 100 years. Hardy in Zones 3-6.

Learn More: Discover Different Types of Maple Trees

Sunshine Blue Caryopteris

Also known as bluebeard, caryopteris brings the color with lavender-hued blooms that open in late summer and fall. This variety is sold as Sunshine Blue II (Caryopteris incana), which pairs gold leaves with pretty purple flowers. Drought-tolerant and deer-resistant, a caryopteris shrub makes a great addition to a wildlife garden where its flowers beckon all kinds of pollinators. Plants grow 2 to 3 feet tall and wide. Hardy in Zones 5-9.

Dwarf Fothergilla

Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) is a native shrub with leaves that form a kaleidoscope of fall hues, including gold, red, purple and orange. This stunner grows in part shade to full sun, which is the secret to the best fall color. In spring, branches open white blooms that resemble bottlebrushes. Flowers are fragrant and provide an early nectar source for pollinating insects. Look for different fothergilla varieties that grow up to 8 feet tall and wide. This dwarf plant doesn’t need a lot of room to strut its stuff, growing just 2 to 3 feet tall and wide. Hardy in Zones 5-8.

Beautyberry

Include native beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) in your landscape for a one-of-a-kind fall accent — bright purple berries. During the growing season, beautyberry is somewhat non-descript and easy to overlook. But as fall arrives, those purple berries sparkle, beckoning fruit-eating birds like cedar waxwings, cardinals and catbirds. Plants grow 3 to 8 feet tall and wide. Hardy in Zones 6-10. Look for other varieties with a more compact size, including Pearl Glam (4 to 5 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide). Hardy in Zones 5-8.

Garden Mums

An autumn classic, garden mums carry the season with hues of orange, gold, russet, burgundy and bronze. If you want to grow garden mums as perennials, get them into the ground as soon as you see them for sale. The plants need at least six weeks before frost to establish a healthy root system. In coldest zones, hedge your bets for winter survival by mulching plants just before the ground freezes. Hardy in Zones 4-8.

Learn More: Mums 101: When To Plant and How To Grow Chrysanthemums

Sumac

As a group, sumacs are native to North America and offer multi-season interest. Fall foliage blazes in brilliant red and orange, while fuzzy red berry clusters linger through winter. Native sumacs tend to spread and form colonies. Site this plant where it can safely sprawl — it's a great choice for filling a corner or obscuring a view. Tiger Eyes (Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger') is a gold-leaf variety that grows 6 feet tall and wide. It also forms a thicket, but at a slower rate. To keep suckers under control, clip them as soon as they appear, digging down a bit to snip them at the base. The fall color on Tiger Eyes (shown) is a spectacular medley of yellow, orange and intense scarlet. Hardy in Zones 4-8.

Learn More: Sensational Sumac

Ginkgo

Commonly called maidenhair tree, ginkgo (G. biloba) offers a distinctive leaf form that turns a rich gold hue in autumn. This tree is beyond an heirloom plant — it's the oldest living fossil, a remnant of the dinosaur era. It makes an excellent shade, lawn or street tree, where its tolerance of urban pollution is an asset. Ginkgo trees are male or female (most nurseries carry only male trees). Make sure you’re not planting a female tree because it forms very stinky fruit. Trees grow 50 to 80 feet tall and 30 to 40 feet wide. Hardy in Zones 3-8.

Learn More: Growing Ginkgos

Oakleaf Hydrangea

Discover this unsung member of the hydrangea family that's a native plant. Oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia) is a shrub to small tree that doesn't disappoint in autumn with fiery leaf tints and fading flowers in pink shades. Blossoms form cone-shaped heads that open white and slowly fade to parchment tones by winter. Plants typically grow 6 to 8 feet tall and wide, spreading to form a colony. It's an ideal plant for a hedge. Give it a spot in part shade with a mulch over the roots. Hardy in Zones 5-9. Look for new varieties from short to tall with larger flowers in different colors, including ones that open white and fade to pink.

Learn More: How to Plant, Grow and Care for Hydrangeas

'Karl Foerster' Feather Reed Grass

The trick with adding ornamental grasses to your garden is to choose one that's the right size for your growing spot. 'Karl Foerster' feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora) maintains a tidy footprint, growing 12 to 18 inches wide and 3 to 5 feet tall. Straw-tinted plumes appear in summer and linger all winter long. This grass thrives in moist soil and even grows in heavy clay. Use it to add a strong vertical accent to planting beds where space is tight, or line it up in rows along a fence or back of a planting bed. Hardy in Zones 5-9.

Learn More: Types of Ornamental Grasses

Pansy

For outstanding fall color, make pansies your go-to plant. This annual is versatile in the garden and looks equally enchanting in containers or planting beds. Pansies bounce back from light frosts, making them perfect contenders for keeping the color show going strong, even as temps start to tumble. When buying pansies, choose from several types, including large-flowered, small-flowered, trailing and mounding. Read plant tags to make sure you get the right kind to achieve your autumn garden goals.

Learn More: Growing Tips and Planting Ideas for Fall Pansies

Fall Fiesta Sugar Maple

Sugar maple is a classic autumn star with leaves that blaze in shades of yellow, red and gold. It's the tree that fills the starring role in New England's fall color extravaganza. Fall Fiesta sugar maple (Acer saccharum 'Bailsta') unfurls leaves that shift more to reds and oranges on a tree with a nicely rounded form. Use it as a lawn shade tree in full sun to part shade. Avoid placing it where it will be exposed to road salt or compacted soil. This tree grows to 75 feet tall and 45 feet wide. Hardy in Zones 3-8.

Learn More: Discover Different Types of Maple Trees

Russian Sage

If you're looking for a plant-it-and-forget-it perennial, check out Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia). This beauty brings the goods in every season: gorgeous gray-green leaves, a purple flower cloud in late summer and fall, and silver-white stems in winter. Leaves and stems are intensely fragrant, which is why deer and rabbits leave it alone. Give it a spot in sun with well-drained soil, where it typically grows 3 to 4 feet tall and wide. If you have a small garden, look for varieties with a shorter stature. Hardy in Zones 4-9.

Learn More: Planting and Growing Russian Sage

'Fireworks' Goldenrod

Count on this native wildflower to explode with color in your fall garden. 'Fireworks' goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) opens tiny gold blossoms in sprays up to 18 inches long. The flowers make great additions to bouquets. Blooms beckon pollinators, including butterflies and bees. Deer and rabbits ignore this drought-tolerant plant. Pair it with ornamental grasses, Russian sage or asters for a spectacular display. Plants grow 3 feet high by 2 feet wide. Hardy in Zones 4-9.

Learn More: Festive ‘Fireworks’ Goldenrod

Black Gum

A Southern favorite for fall beauty, black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) fires up the landscape with autumn leaves in brilliant shades of red, orange and yellow. This tree is known by many names, including black tupelo and sour gum, which refers to the fruits that form. The sour fruits are gobbled by birds, while nectar-laden spring flowers beckon bees. Black gum is an excellent shade tree that's slow-growing. Choose your site to provide full sun to part shade. Trees grow 30 to 50 feet tall and 20 to 30 feet wide. Hardy in Zones 3-9.

'Apache Rose' Switch Grass

Switch grass (Panicum virgatum) is a native prairie grass. 'Apache Rose' features a smaller size and rose-tinted flower spikes that add a different hue to the fall palette. This switch grass forms a sturdy clump that doesn't lodge or fall over despite wind, heavy rain or snow. Really heavy snows are about the only thing that can flatten this beauty. Plants are deer-resistant, drought- and salt-tolerant and provide winter shelter to birds. Use it for vertical interest, in containers or as a focal point in designs. Plants grow 48 inches tall and 30 inches wide. Hardy in Zones 4-9.

Learn More: Types of Ornamental Grasses

Blue Star Amsonia

A native plant, this fall stunner is also known as Arkansas blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii). It's a tough-as-nails perennial that opens blue starry blooms in late spring to early summer. The plant grows 3 feet tall and wide, forming a shrub-size clump by late summer. As autumn arrives, green leaves shift to brilliant gold. Use blue star amsonia as a backdrop to other fall flowers, including aster, sedum or helenium. These deer- and critter-resistant plants thrive in full sun to part shade. Hardy in Zones 4-9.

Blue Fescue

Blue fescue (Festuca glauca) brings a touch of steel blue to planting beds year-round. It forms tidy clumps topped with feathery straw-colored flower stems in summer. In fall, the blue leaves provide a textural and colorful contrast to autumn all-stars like sedum, garden mums and fothergilla. Blue fescue grows in full sun and survives rocky, droughty soil. Clumps grow 12 inches tall by 6 inches wide — a perfect size for lining a walkway or drive. Hardy in Zones 4-8.

Learn More: Blue Fescue

Japanese Maple

Japanese maples are one of the most versatile trees for any yard, patio or garden. Beloved for their brilliant color through spring and fall, these trees add artistic beauty to the winter landscape with sculptural branches and trunk. If you're choosing a Japanese maple for fall color, visit the nursery in autumn to see leaf hues. These maples grow anywhere from 2 to 30 feet tall and come in many forms, including dwarf, rounded, upright and weeping. With so much variety, it's important to do your homework before buying a tree. Hardy in Zones 5-8.

Learn More: Growing Japanese Maples: A Guide to Planting and Care

Fountain Grass

If you like a grass with a more flowing appearance, fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) delivers a classic undulating, soft texture. The soft, bottlebrush-like seed heads add texture to bouquets and enhance fall gardens, often lingering through winter. Look for varieties that come in different sizes and leaf colors. Fountain grass grows from 1 to 4 feet tall, depending on the type. This grass thrives in sun, heat and humidity. The one must-have for success is well-drained soil in winter. Hardy in Zones 5-9.

Learn More: Types of Ornamental Grasses

Sassafras

The native sassafras tree (S. albidum) has unusual leaf shapes that turn gold, red and purple in fall. You can prune sassafras to have a single trunk or let it sucker to create a thicket. Crushed twigs and leaves have a classic sassafras odor (some people say it smells like Fruit Loops cereal), while roots smell like root beer. To keep suckers under control, cut shoots to the ground as soon as they appear. Give it a spot in full sun to part shade with acid soil that's moist but well-drained. Trees grow 20 to 30 feet tall and 20 to 40 feet wide. Hardy in Zones 4-9.

'Autumn Gold' Flowering Dogwood

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a beloved native tree celebrated for its spring blossoms in white or pink. 'Autumn Gold' opens smaller white flowers in spring, followed by yellow fall foliage and bright red fruits that birds can't resist. Plant this dogwood in average to moist soil in part shade to full sun. Expect this tree to grow 15 to 25 feet tall with a spread of 8 to 12 feet. Hardy in Zones 5-9.

Learn More: Dogwood Tree Planting, Care, Varieties and Facts

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