Growing Concerns 541: Great fall color in trees

You don't need a maple to paint the town red next fall

I recently moved into a house with a completely empty front yard. I need to tree! It will be pretty much full sun. The tree will have a decent amount of space to spread.

I read your articles here  about not choosing the same trees that are overplanted but I didn't see any tree recommended that was listed as having great fall color. I really want bright orange in the fall where it looks like the whole tree is on fire. - J.C. -

Dear J.C.,

Sugar maples (Acer saccharum) are probably the best known trees for flaming orange, and red maples (Acer rubrum) for incendiary red. They aren't on my list of recommended species for replacing ash trees only because maples are already overused and so should not be prime candidates for replacing more than 30 million ash trees we are losing to emerald ash borer.

Lots of fall color photos and a guide to plants in Fall color Landscape.


There are other trees with stand-out orange and red fall color, however. Some such as sassafras (right), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), serviceberry (Amelanchier species) and thornless 'Princeton Sentry' and 'Crusader' hawthorns (Crataegus phaenopyrumand C. crusgalli varieties) are on my list. Others were skipped reluctantly but deliberately to keep the list relatively short and thus make it more appealing in this era of overwhelming choices.

However, now that you've asked, here's the long list!

As you peruse it, think beyond simple color to timing. Our position on the globe makes us one of the few regions with great fall color. Those hues change week by week as different species peak, so make the most of it -- go for combinations of trees and shrubs that will yield a full five weeks of burning orange and red.

Orange, red and maroon fall colors

Early October peak:

Trees: Amur maple (Acer ginnala), flowering dogwood, red & sugar maples, sassafras, serviceberry

Shrubs: staghorn sumac, burning bush, doublefile viburnum

Late October peak

Trees: black gum, hawthorn, Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), kousa dogwood, paperbark maple (Acer griseum), red-silver hybrid maples (Acer x freemanii), sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), stewartia (S. pseudocamellia), sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

Shrubs: arrowwood viburnum, chokeberry (Aronia species), fothergilla (F. gardenii), fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica)

Early November peak

Trees: red oak, white oak, Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana varieties such as 'Redspire' and 'Chanticleer')

Shrubs: smoke bush (Cotinus species)

Include perennials and groundcovers that bloom late or glow with fall foliage color, too! That's how to give gardeners we usually envy, in England and California, their own taste of the green-eyed monster. In those mild climes they may be able to grow more kinds of plants than we can, but they know they have to come here for fall color tours!


Green thumbs up

to cities replanting for diversity and to you who've sent for the list of recommended, uncommon tree species to replace ashes lost to emerald ash borer. In the next tree epidemic, your efforts toward diversity will prevent the deforestation we're seeing now as whole avenues planted in ash are stripped of cover. What you plant now may even derail the next tree problem, when that insect or disease fails to find continuous blocks of its target species to fuel its spread..


Green thumbs down

to the garden center employees, sent to plant some large trees for R.P. who said, "Nope, can't do that! We'll void your warranty if you plant them that way!" And cheers for R.P. who replied, "You will too plant them at grade, not elevated, and you will take off all the cages and burlap, and you will not stake them. Because if you plant them this way I'm specifying I will not need your warranty!" And five years plus great growth have proven R.P. right!


Originally published 11/15/03