10 of the best plants for autumn colour

Choose the right plants, and autumn can be a spectacular time in the garden.

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Many deciduous trees, shrubs and climbers put on a beautiful show before their leaves fall, and there are hips, berries and fruits to enjoy, too. Plus, of course, there are plenty of flowers to keep the colour going.

Browse our suggestions for 10 unusual autumn shrubs.

Discover 10 spectacular plants for autumn colour, below – add some of these beauties in your garden for a wonderful autumn display.

Top 10 plants for autumn colour

1

Snowy mespilus

Amelanchier lamarckii is beautiful, small tree that is attractive in all seasons. In March the branches have star-shaped flowers, just as the coppery pink young leaves unfold. In July the tree is studded with dark red berries. In autumn, the yellowish green leaves turn scarlet and crimson.

Sunlight shining through coppery-pink and pale-yellow foliage of snowy mespilus 2

Aster

Most asters (now called Symphyotrichum) flower in late summer and autumn, bringing welcome late colour to borders. Symphyotrichum ‘Little Carlow’ is one of the best, producing vibrant, light purple flowers. Plant in a sunny, airy position to ensure maximum flowering. After flowering, cut back hard. Discover more autumn-flowering perennials.

A pale-purple flower of aster ‘Little Carlow’ 3

Beauty berry

Known as the beauty berry, Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii ‘Profusion’ produces large clusters of stunning and unusual purple berries in mid-autumn, overlapping with the golden purple leaf tints and then lingering after leaf-fall. Discover more shrubs that look good in autumn.

Vivid-purple berries and golden foliage of beauty berry 4

Judas tree

Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ is a multi-stemmed tree with purple, heart-shaped leaves which turn a dramatic yellow in autumn. Its deep crimson, pink or sometimes white pea-like flowers give a dramatic spring display before new leaves appear.

Heart-shaped russet leaves of the Judas tree 5

Autumn crocus

Autumn crocuses (Colchicum) flower in September and October. The large blooms suddenly appear from bare earth without any leaves – hence the common name, naked ladies. Colchicum ‘Waterlily’ has striking, double flowers with pinkish purple petals. Watch our video guide to growing colchicums.

Pink-purple, double flowers of crocus ‘Waterlily’ 6

Cotoneaster

Cotoneasters give beautiful displays of red berries in autumn. Cotoneaster horizontalis is popular for the characteristic herringbone pattern of its stems, which makes it useful trained across the ground or on a wall.

Red berries and tiny evergreen leaves of cotoneaster 7

Crab apple

With colourful fruits and foliage, crab apples look wonderful in autumn. Malus ‘Evereste’ is flushed with red-flushed, orange-yellow fruits in autumn that complement the orange-yellow leaves. It is an excellent tree for smaller gardens, with a pleasant conical shape.

Rosy fruit and yellow leaves of crab apple ‘Evereste’ 8

Nerine

Most nerines are tender greenhouse bulbs, but Nerine bowdenii can be grown outdoors in a warm, sunny border backed by the shelter of a wall. They will reward you with a late display of lipstick-pink flowers. Discover more autumn-flowering bulbs.

Showy pink nerine blooms 9

Virginia creeper

Parthenocissus henryana, Chinese Virginia creeper, is less vigorous than other varieties and can be useful for a north-facing wall in a small garden. Its foliage is more delicate as well, with a velvety texture and silvery-white veins; it turns a fiery crimson in autumn.

Coppery leaves of Virginia creeper 10

Sternbergia lutea

Sternbergia lutea are autumn-flowering bulbs that come from Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, where they are baked in the hot dry summer weather. Plant them in a warm sunny spot, ideally near a warm wall, and shield them from winter weather. Give them good drainage, too.

Advertisement Bright-yellow flowers of Sternbergia lutea Bright-red, deeply-serrated leaves of acer ‘Dissectum Atropurpureum’

More plants for autumn colour

  • Acers put on a spectacular show in autumn – discover 10 acers to grow.
  • Dahlias will continue to flower until the first frosts, if regularly deadheaded and fed.
  • Cornus put on a spectacular show before their leaves fall to reveal colourful winter stems
  • Euonymus europaeus turns a spectacular shade of red before the leaves fall.
  • Euonymus alatus also turns a beautiful crimson in autumn.
  • Chrysanthemums flower well into autumn and are excellent for cutting.
  • Ornamental grasses are at their best in autumn, and combine well with all kinds of perennials and shrubs.
  • Japanese anemones flower well into autumn, in shades of pink and white.
  • Sedums (now called Hylotelephium) look great in autumn and their flat flowerheads contrast well with more upright forms.

There’s a distinct chill to the air and a softer, golden quality to the morning light, which can mean only one thing: autumn is on its way. But it is possible to hold shorter days at bay with these late-season flowering plants. They are all recommended by the RHS on its list of plants for pollinators, and bring colour to pots and borders over the coming months, as well as providing a welcome source of pollen and nectar for insects as summer flowers fade.

Hardy plumbago

The pretty, blue, vinca-like flowers of Ceratostigma plumbaginoides appear from late summer. The leaves turn spectacular shades of red, making for a striking contrast alongside the blue flowers. A low-growing herbaceous perennial often used as ground cover where it forms dense mounds, it spreads by rhizomes and can become invasive. Happy in a container or tumbling over low stone walls like Erigeron karvinskianus (Mexican fleabane). Underplant with small, spring-flowering bulbs.
Grow it In a sunny border.
Buy it Crocus.

Salvia ‘Blue Enigma’

A statuesque plant that grows up to 1.5m, with tall spikes of attractive, gentian-blue flowers. It’ll produce blooms nonstop from midsummer until the first frosts, provided it has a sunny spot with free-draining soil. Although said to be hardy down to -10C, it won’t be happy in cold, wet soils. Take cuttings in late summer, or lift and store in a greenhouse or cold frame over winter.
Grow it In large containers by an entrance for autumn drama.
Buy it Beth Chatto.

Clematis ‘Cassandra’

A non-climbing clematis that grows like a bushy shrub and forms neat mounds of foliage from a woody clump of stems. Produces clusters of lavender-blue, scented, tubular blooms similar to hyacinth flowers. In late winter/early spring, cut back to near the base. Needs a sunny spot and free-draining soil. Height: 75cm.
Grow it Among herbaceous perennials that will provide ideal shady, cool conditions for its roots.
Buy it Thorncroft Clematis.

Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’

This late-flowering herbaceous perennial is the epitome of elegance. The pure white flowers with egg yolk-like, yellow centres add a cool note when hotter colours abound. Blooms are held on slender stems above an attractive mound of dark green foliage. It can cope with partial shade, so is ideal for lighting up the back of a border. Grows to 1-1.5m.
Grow it Against the dark green backdrop of a hedge, where those flowers will really shine.
Buy it See offer below.

Aster ‘Little Carlow’

You’ll possibly be more familiar with this plant as an aster, although it has been reclassified by botanists as symphyotrichum. Also known as a Michaelmas daisy, it’s an essential autumn plant with masses of pale blue, daisy-like flowers with a yellow centre held on thin stems, creating a haze of colour. Doesn’t succumb to powdery mildew, and is happy in partial shade. Height: 90cm.
Grow it Alongside other late-flowering perennials such as Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’ and Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’.
Buy it Claire Austin Hardy Plants.

Crocus ‘Conqueror’

Crocuses aren’t just for spring: there are several that bloom now, among them C. speciosus ‘Conqueror’, with its violet-blue, goblet-shaped blooms with delicately veined petals and striking orange centre. The flowers appear from late September, and slowly increase to form colonies. Foliage follows the flowers, so if grown in grass, don’t mow until that’s died down. Needs well-drained soil.
Grow it Naturalise in short grass alongside the autumn-flowering Cyclamen hederifolium.
Buy it Peter Nyssen.

Dahlia ‘Honka’

Avoid dahlia varieties with tightly packed petals; instead, choose those with simple, open flowers that allow easy access to pollen. ‘Honka’, with its pale yellow, star-like flowers, is a magnet for bees, and blooms will keep on coming until the first frosts blacken the plant. Try planting with Verbena bonariensis or the lower-growing V. ‘Lollipop’, both of which will flower well into autumn, to create a nectar bar for passing bees and butterflies.
Grow it Mulch plants over winter or lift and store in a frost-free spot.
Buy it The Lost World Nursery.

Bugbane ‘Hillside Black Beauty’

White, bottlebrush flowers tinged pink are held on slender stems above a clump of attractive, dark purple foliage. The flowers of this variety of Actaea simplex have the added bonus of being sweetly scented. A herbaceous perennial that needs moist soil, it will happily grow in partial shade or full sun, as long as the roots don’t dry out. Untroubled by pests, hence the common name bugbane. Height: 1.2m.
Grow it At the back of a border or a shady woodland spot.
Buy it Dorset Perennials.

Plant offer

Buy a one-litre potted Anemone ‘Honorine Jobert’ for £12.99, or two for £17.98 (prices include free UK mainland p&p). To order, call 0330 333 6856, quoting ref GU400, or go to our Readers’ offers page. Orders dispatched in October.

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The best plants for autumn colour in your garden

The beauty of trees lies not only in their shape, manner and colouring, but also in the texture of their bark, their buds, flowers, berries and seeds, and the fleeting turn of hue at this time of year. I’m obsessed with autumn leaves. A car journey with me in the driving seat during October and November can be a dangerous lurch as I point out and exclaim at each butter yellow, each riotous scarlet and every eye-catching orange, sometimes screeching to a halt to rush and collect a particular goody, which I take home to press between sheets of newspaper and mats.


Euonymus ‘Cascade’ (MARTIN POPE)

Some families of trees offer a bonanza of year-round show-stoppers: the rowans (Sorbus), crab apples (Malus), and acers. Many will bring in flocks of feasting birds and mammals to dine on their fruits and enliven your garden throughout these quieter months of the year.

Now is the time to plant trees, and if you are impatient to get going, visit Barcham Trees, near Ely (barcham.co.uk) and marvel at the range and sizes available: 484 varieties from 10cm (5in) girth in 45-litre pots to 50cm (25in) girth in 3,000-litre pots (for those with deep pockets).


The fallen leaves at Mount Ephraim are an example of autumn colour at its finest (MARTIN POPE)

The company’s book Time for Trees is, as the head of the arboretum at Kew, Tony Kirkham, says, “packed full of very useful information on trees and their attributesin terms of leaf, flower and fruit”.

BEST FOR AUTUMN INTEREST

Parrotia persica — small and rounded Persian ironwood tree with mottled yellow bark, and an autumn display of crimson, purple and gold.

Sorbus hupehensis — with blue-tinged leaves turning red in autumn, and sprays of pinkish-white berries that stay until Christmas.

Ginko biloba — maidenhair tree, with curious fan-shaped leaves that turn butter yellow, and prehistoric-looking roots, making a comeback as an urban tree.

Malus hupehensis – best of the bunch with small dark red, cherry-like fruits, pink buds, white flowers with a columnar shape. Also Malus ‘Donald Wyman’ for vivid red fruits.


Malus (MARTIN POPE)

Liriodendron tulipifera — tulip tree with fragrant sap, tulip-shaped, bee-friendly lime flowers and large square leaves that start pale green and finish yellow.

Cercis canadensis — forest pansy with spectacular rounded, heart-shaped leaves in pink and purple. Grow in full sun to maximise range of leaf colour.

Euonymus europaeus — red cascade, the spindleberry, with rosy fruits, orange seeds and rich red foliage, an arching technicolour tree with a mature height of 5m (16ft).

Styrax obassia — fragrant snowbell with cream flowers, attractive mottled bark and large round leaves that turn cream with brown veins in autumn.

Eucalyptus niphophila — the snow gum with grey cream and brown patchwork bark and blue-green leaves, grown multi-stemmed, it is slower growing than gunnii.

Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’ with exotic orchid-like flowers, dark, vanilla pod-like seeds and large fleshy yellow leaves with brown undersides, this is a rewarding tree for a sheltered site.

VISIT AN ARBORETUM NEAR YOU

Francine recommends Westonbirt, Tetbury in Gloucestershire; Anglesey Abbey; Lode in Cambridgeshire; Goodnestone Park, Wingham in Kent; Batsford, Moreton-in-March, Gloucestershire; Tatton Park, Knutsford in Cheshire; Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

To find an arboretum in your county, visit britainsfinest.co.uk

The gardens at Mount Ephraim house at Hernhill near Faversham, Kent ME13 9TX are usually closed during winter, but Telegraph readers are welcome any day between 10am and 5pm. There is an honesty box for the entrance fee. The house/gardens are available for events and weddings (mountephraimgardens.co.uk).

Ask the experts: Our expert panel answer questions on DIY, eco design, mortgages, cleaning, architecture, consumer issues and more

Question: ‘My garden has been so bright over the summer. What can I plant now to keep it looking vibrant through the cooler months?’

Garden designer, Caroline Tilston, says: September is a great time to plant; the soil is still warm and there should be enough rain to get everything bedded in. To keep that wonderful exuberant summer colour in the garden I’d go for a mixture of autumn-flowering plants such as sun-loving Chinese plumbago, a wonderful shrub with cobalt blue flowers. Mix these with orange Helenium autumnale ‘Salsa’ to keep the spirit of summer going.

Chinese plumbago shrub DeAgostini/Getty Images

Further into autumn, colour’s a bit trickier to come by but the shrub Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’ will provide stars of lavender blue with bright yellow centres.

And try to find room for winter-flowering camellia; these bring unexpectedly exotic flowers at Christmas – Camellia x vernalis ‘Yuletide’ is particularly lovely. They do need acid soil so you may have to put them in a pot with special ericaceous compost.

Aster x frikartii ‘Monch’ Neil HolmesGetty Images

Finally, looking even further forward, now’s the time to plant early spring iris bulbs. These will start to bloom just after Christmas; choose a lighter blue-coloured flower such as Iris ‘Alida’, which will stand out against the dark soil.

From: House Beautiful magazine

Get inspiration, ideas and advice wherever you are! Follow us on Facebook: House Beautiful UK | Pinterest: House Beautiful UK | Twitter: @HB | Instagram: @housebeautifuluk

Autumn interest plants

Although the sunshine may be slowly fading away, autumn is definitely not a time of doom and gloom, with late flowering perennials and shrubs, beautiful eye-catching autumnal leaf colour and berries further adding to the autumn colour palette. Evergreens provide the perfect backdrop to the autumn showstoppers – Fatsia Japonica is a bold, architectural, tropical-looking shrub with glossy foliage, whilst Chamaecyparis Alumnigold is a good choice for the conical habit of a conifer.

Abelia Grandiflora has delicate, light pink, funnel-shaped flowers and Echinacea Purpurea has giant, daisy-like, rich lilac-pink blooms. Hebes such as Hebe Purple Queen and Hebe Champagne possess attractive, tightly-packed flower spikes against a backdrop of evergreen foliage. If it’s berried interest you’re looking for, Aucuba Rozannie is a small compact evergreen shrub with bright orange-red berries or, alternatively, common holly plants known so well for their use as intruder-proof native hedging produce deep red berries against the backdrop of spiky, glossy green leaves.

For other interesting features, consider the fiery foliage colours of heather plants such as Calluna Firefly or Calluna Wickwar Flame, the citrus-scented, golden-yellow foliage of Choisya ternata Sundance, the bold, blotchy golden variegation of Elaeagnus Gilt Edge, or the blood-red foliage of Cornus Sibirica which falls to reveal attractive, architectural scarlet young shoots. Fig plants, most apple trees and many other fruit bushes will be ready to be harvested in the autumn and late flowering climbers such as Clematis Tangutica should not be dismissed.

Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)

Perfect for…small gardens

Japanese maple are small, deciduous trees, which are perfectly happy to grow in large containers, in smaller gardens. Make sure to fill tubs with loam-based compost, such as John Innes No 2 and keep the soil moist.

A slow-release fertiliser or liquid feed is also a good idea in spring. Transplant Japanese maples into bigger tubs every year or so – April/September is the best time to do this.

Make sure to cover or wrap the pots in winter, as the roots can be susceptible to frost. Japanese maples thrive best in slightly acidic, well-drained loam.

This is easy to achieve in pots, however if you do not have this soil at home, they might be a little trickier to grow. Make sure to plant them in sheltered area, with some sun.

Japanese maple Credit: Alamy

Common beech (Fagus sylvatica)

Perfect for…large gardens

Beech trees can be grown in well-drained soil in sun or part shade. They are suited pretty much to any pH and soil type, and will therefore grow in most areas of the UK.

They do however grow extremely tall – so make sure you have enough room before you plant one.

A beech tree in autumn Credit: Alamy

Disanthus (Disanthus cercidifolius)

Perfect for…small gardens

Disanthus prefers more acidic soils, however will grow perfectly in sand, clay and loam. It grows to a maximum height of 2.5 metres, making it perfect for smaller gardens.

Similarly to common beech, disanthus is best grown in full sun or part shade. It will also need protection from strong winds and harsh winter frosts.

Disanthus Credit: Alamy

Maidenhair tree ‘Autumn Gold’ (Ginkgo biloba)

Perfect for…large gardens

Ginkgo biloba trees are incredibly tall – growing to over 12 metres high – making them ideal for larger, sprawling gardens.

They are unfussy when it comes to soil type, but must be grow in well-drained conditions, in full sun. ‘Autumn Gold’ is particularly stunning in the autumn.

Ginkgo biloba ‘Autumn Gold’ Credit: Alamy

Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)

Perfect for…large gardens

Nyssa trees can grow beyond 12 metres, however have gorgeous orange colour throughout the autumn.

They are not suited to alkaline soils and will grow in moist, fertile ground, with shelter from the wind.

Tupelo Credit: Alamy

Japanese mahonia (Mahonia japonica)

Perfect for…small gardens

More of a shrub than a tree, Mahonias only grow to 1.5 metres, and are therefore perfect for smaller gardens.

They tolerate all types of soil, however require well-drained conditions in shade. Throughout the autumn they have pretty flowers and beautifully coloured foliage.

Japanese mahonia Credit: Alamy

Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)

Perfect for…medium sized gardens

Spindle trees have extremely pretty yellow/red coloured foliage and gorgeous red fruits which split during autumn.

They grow ultimately to 4 metres and will happily grow in any type of soil – but well-drained conditions and sun or partial shade is vital.

Spindle tree Credit: Alamy

  • 1. Acer Palmatum ‘Osakazuki’

    Many of the Japanese maples turn brilliant hues in autumn, but ‘Osakazuki’ is one of the best. Eventually forming a small tree up to 5-6 metres tall, it has bright green leaves in spring that turn deep, vibrant crimson in autumn. It needs a sheltered spot in sun or dappled shade, and prefers an acidic soil. On neutral ground, adding sulphur chips around the base of the tree can help to acidify the soil (this also applies to Cercidiphyllum and Liquidambar).

  • 2. Cercidiphyllum Japonicum

    A spectacular tree that can eventually reach 15 metres, C. japonicum has rounded, almost heart-shape leaves that are flushed pink when young before turning bright green in summer. In autumn, it puts on a brilliant firework display in red, yellow, orange and purple, and as the leaves fall, they give off a scent of caramelised sugar. Best grown in a sheltered spot in sun or dappled shade, it prefers an acidic soil, which intensifies the colour.

  • 3. Cornus Kousa ‘Miss Satomi’

    This is often chosen for its summer colour, as it produces amazing pink bracts in June, but it is just as spectacular in autumn, when its leaves turn brilliant crimson and orange. An easy-to-please small tree, it will eventually reach about 5 metres tall, and needs an open, sunny spot and well-drained, fertile soil to be at its best.

  • 4. Liquidambar Styraciflua ‘Festival’

    A large garden tree growing up to 18 metres, ‘Festival’ is an unusual cultivar with leaves that turn a vivid shade of dark red in autumn. Grown in full sun or light shade, it does best in a moist, fertile soil and, although it will grow well in most areas, it produces its brightest autumn colour in lime-free or acidic soils.

  • 5. Parrotia Persica ‘Felice’

    The Persian ironwood tree is known for its beautiful autumnal tones, most turning shades of orange. But the unusual selection ‘Felicie’ is different, with darker, crimson-purple leaves that offer a contrast to other autumn colours. Eventually growing to about 10 metres, it is happy in sun or light shade in any fertile soil.

Autumn is a time for cosy jumpers, crisp mornings and hot chocolates. But it’s not quite Autumn until the leaves have changed and tree branches are a stunning blaze of fiery reds and oranges. September and October is a beautiful time for trees and plants.

Find some of Tree2mydoor’s favourite Trees for Autumn Colour and send a beautiful tree gift to brighten up a loved ones garden this season.

Japanese Maple Trees

Japanese maple trees provide the garden with colour and interest all year round, whether the leaves are green, purple, red or orange there’s so many different varieties out there and each will bring something completely different to the garden.

For most of the year both the Enkan Japanese Maple and Bloodgood Japanese Maple Tree leaves are a beautiful dark burgundy in colour but as soon as the season starts to change you’ll come to find a vivid red that will stand out loud and proud from the rest of the garden.

The Orange Dream Japanese Maple is a vibrant lime green, almost neon through spring and summer, the edges of the leaves will slowly start to tinged red with the centre of the leaf turns to a yellow orange before totally transforming to a lighter but just as beautiful red.

You can’t go wrong with a Japanese Maple Tree and as they have a small growing habit and are perfect for smaller gardens and container growing. Amazing to send for any occasion they’ll light up even the gloomiest day sat on the patio or planted out in the garden.

Flowering Cherry Trees

Similar to the Japanese Maples, Flowering Cherry Trees provide seasonal interest in the garden.

In early spring, the flowering trees will leave you in a heady whim of fragrant blossom but in the autumn they will become a blaze of reds and oranges. Check out some of our favourites below!

The Prunus Pink Perfection has large green leaves that become deep red almost magenta in colour, a show stopper for sure in spring and autumn.

For something to contrast the summer foliage in the garden the Royal Burgundy Cherry Tree has deep red leaves.

Our flowering cherry trees are popular to send for weddings and anniversaries, the blossom and vibrant autumn colour make it a wedding gift that keeps giving year after year.

Beech Trees

Beech Trees are a beautifully large UK native tree and in particular, the copper beech tree provides a year round display of deep burgundy leaves. The large tree then transforms through beautiful shades of orange.

Although not evergreen, if pruned a certain way the beech trees are known to keep their leaves way through the winter right up until the new spring growth.

Bear in mind that beech trees can grow to be very large so are best suited to larger gardens or grounds where it will have enough space.

Red Oak

The Red Oak Tree is pretty much like regular oak but you guessed it… redder! While the regular oak tree does turn a lovely shade of orange for the season, the quercus rubra turn a much more rich, vibrant shade of red.

Like our much beloved beech trees, oak varieties grow to be very large so is best suited to spaces where it will have enough space to grow. Known as the ‘King of the Woods’ it’s an ideal gift to send to a special man in your life.

Crab Apple

Crab apple trees aren’t just a pretty face when it comes to autumn, this is when the crab apples become ripe!

Leave as food to attract hungry wildlife or if you do want to have a go at using them you could try your hand at making some delicious crab apple jelly or liqueur. A tasty little autumn gift, YUM!

Our lovely little Crab apples are also known as the tree of love and are the perfect gift for anniversaries, birthdays or just for someone you love.

Blueberry Plant

Although not technically a tree, we couldn’t help but include the lovely little Blueberry Plant. It might be quite surprising to some, but blueberry plants in fact have an absolutely spectacular autumn colour.

The blaze of red leaves that cover the bushy plant will create a stunning focal point in the garden. Not only do they look stunning in Autumn, but the exquisite blossom they produce in the spring is also certainly eye-catching.

Blueberry plants make the most perfect birthday or anniversary gift, especially in the autumn.

These trees and plants are all perfect for Autumn birthdays, anniversaries or any occasion you could think of. From the smallest gardens to the largest, each one deserves some beautiful autumn foliage to see it through into the wintertime. Send a loved one an autumn tree gift and brighten up their garden even on the greyest days.

Red Fall Leaves: Learn About Trees With Red Foliage In Fall

Oh, the colors of fall. Gold, bronze, yellow, saffron, orange and, of course, red. Red fall leaves enrich the autumn palette and outfit the season in regal splendor. Numerous trees and shrubs can provide that searing scarlet or crimson cache to the home landscape. Trees that turn red in autumn span more than the lovely red maples into many more ornamental specimens. Many of these trees start out other colors but end up a decided red, amping up the color as the season progresses, only to pop out with a thrilling red finale.

Red Fall Leaves

Fall is one of the most beautiful and colorful seasons. It is a time for leaf maturity, but the death of the foliage is presaged by a gloriously painted landscape for several months. Many of the most colorful leaves are on the trees that turn red in autumn. Red colored tree leaves provide a startling contrast to many of the more common colors in nature.

The drab browns, humdrum grays and blacks and non-descript greens of the average landscape are suddenly transformed by a wild slash of intense fiery color. Adorn your landscape with trees with red fall foliage and make your garden the talk of the town.

Getting red fall leaves takes some pre-planning. While many trees have a successive color display that ends up red, having red leaves the entire season only happens to a few species. Graduated color displays are often some of the best, however, and if the ultimate result is some form of ruby, crimson or burgundy, then it was worth the wait.

Some of the best trees for graduated displays that finalize in a red hue might be Downy serviceberry, blackgum, persimmonand sassafras. The hues and tones of red vary from species to species. ‘Raywood’ ash has been described as having claret colored foliage while ‘Eddies White Wonder’ dogwood has been labeled strawberry red. Each tone in the family has a delicious difference while still screaming ‘red.’

What Causes Red Colored Tree Leaves?

In fall, as a tree begins to go dormant, the supply of chlorophyll running through the tree and its leaves begins to be blocked off. The lack of chlorophyll causes color changes in the leaves. Chlorophyll masks the other colors in the leaf and is usually the predominant color seen visually. When the green is not present, the other colors shine through.

Red fall leaves are caused by a pigment called anthocyanin, which also causes purple hues. These anthocyanins are produced by sugars trapped in leaves in fall. Unlike the other main plant pigments, anthocyanins are not present in most plants during the growing season. This can be confusing until you focus on the word “most.”

Red maples and several other plants have naturally occurring anthocyanins and red colored tree leaves at any time of the year.

Trees That Turn Red in Autumn

If you are captivated by the maroons, crimsons and cherry reds of fall, a list of trees with red fall foliage will help you as you search for that autumn color. The classic red maples seem to just get richer tones of red as the weather cools, while red oaks get a deeper wine colored red. Other trees with tones of red are:

  • Black cherry
  • Flowering dogwood
  • Hornbeam
  • White oak
  • Sourwood
  • Sweetgum
  • Black oak
  • Winged sumac

Each one of these will produce an amazing red fall spectacle while providing other types of seasonal beauty year round.

The 15 best trees and shrubs for fall foliage

By Adrian Higgins Adrian Higgins Gardening columnist November 8, 2017

The lack of rain in recent weeks and lingering summer warmth are likely to diminish the fall color show. But even with a reduced display, the pageantry of this finale forms one of the sweetest garden moments of the year.

Some of your garden plants are going to present magical progressions of color whether you planned for them or not. But if you actively choose and cultivate autumn beauties, you can forgo that trip to New England or Skyline Drive and have your own show at home. All right, that might be a bit of a stretch, but the point is, there are many shade trees, ornamental trees and shrubs with above-par displays.

In selecting 15 of my favorite fall-color plants, I realized that all of them are simply great garden plants of year-round beauty and interest. This is not a planting kit that every garden should have, but suggestions for individual plants that will enhance your landscape. Even if you had an acre or two for the entire lot, chances are your soil and shade conditions wouldn’t work for them all, nor would your overall planting design.

My list is far from comprehensive. It doesn’t include sumacs, for example, or crape myrtles or aronias or blueberry bushes, all of which can have spectacular coloration. One tries to curb one’s enthusiasm.


Individual plants vary in their coloration as well as their stem structure, so it pays to look at them at a well-stocked garden center before buying. These sizes reflect the general stature a decade after planting, aas the plant approaches a mature form. Location, soil conditions and other factors will affect the growth rate. Shade trees, in particular will get substantially larger after several more decades. (pETER HOEY/FTWP) Shade trees

Shade trees cast shade, but they tend to like their heads in the sun. When choosing a site to plant one, worry more about the eventual width than the height.

●Red maple (Acer rubrum): The sugar maple is the poster tree for fall color, but it is likely to be stressed by the heat and humidity of the Mid-Atlantic unless you’re in the mountains. There is a Southern version (A. saccharum subspecies floridanum), but its fall color is not as strong. Enter the red maple, a native tree valued for its fast growth, symmetrical form, smooth gray bark and gorgeous fall color. It is tolerant of poor and wet soils (conditions that lead to more surface roots). Somerset is one of three seedless introductions from the National Arboretum developed for long-lasting, bright red fall coloration and for resistance to a pest called the leafhopper.

●Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba): Putting aside its curiosity value as a prehistoric species, the ginkgo is also a handsome and durable tree. It is versatile, too, and can be used as a street tree, a garden specimen and a high screen. Ginkgos have lofty, open branches full of those distinctive fan-shaped leaves. The big issue with the ginkgo is its fruit — it’s messy, it smells, and it drops over several weeks in early fall. The fruit’s nuts are prized in some East Asian cultures, but if you or your heirs don’t want them, the answer is a male clone such as Autumn Gold.

●Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum): This is a fine-textured conifer with the unusual trait of dropping all its needles before winter. But before they are shed, the leaves shift from bright green to a burnished orange. The effect can be stunning when backlit by the low afternoon sun. The cypress is native to Southern bottomlands and looks best grouped in groves of at least three, if you have the space. In wet areas, the red-brown trunks form handsome buttresses and “knees,” but it is happy in average soil once established and watered during dry spells.

●Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica): Few hardwoods have as reliably stunning fall color as the black gum, also known as the sour gum or black tupelo. The foliage is especially bright and progresses from yellow to orange to scarlet and, finally, red-purple. It is a slow grower and matures to a medium-size tree. It likes moist soil and will take periods of inundation but not continuously wet soils. It is taprooted, and I’d prefer to plant a young container-grown plant rather than a field-dug balled-and-burlap tree. Given its finicky roots, some horticulturists believe it is better to plant in the spring, when the tree is in growth mode. A number of improved varieties have been developed for prolonged leaf color and leaf-spot resistance. In addition to Wildfire, look for Red Rage and Afterburner.

●Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea): Oaks tend to be subdued in their fall coloration, but the scarlet oak is striking for its glowing, deeply lobed red foliage. It does well in average soil and optimally in moist but not wet soils, growing as much as two feet a year. The scarlet oak is the state tree of the District, but it is hard to find in garden centers because its taproot makes it difficult to transplant. For the patient, Earth Sangha Wild Plant Nursery, in Springfield, Va., has saplings in containers. Nature by Design in Alexandria expects to have four- to eight-foot-high container plants in the spring, the optimum season for planting scarlet oak.

(PETER HOEY/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST) Ornamental trees

Ornamental trees are essential focal points and prized specimens in any garden, and their reduced scale makes them ideal for placement in city gardens, next to a patio, along a path or at points of transition in the landscape. All of them benefit from deft and careful pruning when young to develop a pleasing branch structure.

●Persian parrotia (Parrotia persica): As with other large woody plants, the parrotia grows as either a big, multi-stemmed shrub or as a small tree, with a single stem and low branches. Picking a tree form comes down to selecting individual plants in the nursery. Related to the witch hazel and with similar large oval leaves, the parrotia is a standout at this time of year, when the foliage turns yellow, orange and maroon. With age, the exfoliating bark of the parrotia becomes its other extraordinary asset, mottled in gray, green, brown and cream.

●Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida): The native dogwood is beloved for its large white blossoms of spring, but its fall show isn’t too shabby, either. The leaves turn wine-red in early autumn as a reassuring harbinger of fall and winter. Variety selection, location and care are vital in keeping a tree happy and healthy. Appalachian Spring is a superior variety selected for its resistance to anthracnose disease. Other named varieties in the Appalachian series offer protection against powdery mildew disease.

●Japanese maple (Acer palmatum): Japanese maples have beautiful and unexpected combinations of autumn leaf colors. The green-leafed varieties are among the most striking in their autumn coloration. Osakazuki is a classic variety, low-branched and spreading. The fall color is an intense crimson red.

●Sassafras (Sassafras albidum): Valued initially for its bark tea, sassafras is a handsome small tree that forms suckering thickets with time, making it useful for outlying naturalistic parts of a landscape. The suckers can be removed to keep a single specimen, however. The distinctive lobed leaf is a dark glossy green in summer, turning golden and then a rich scarlet in the fall. This is another taprooted native that is best planted as a young container-grown plant. It grows quickly once established.

●Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia): Related to camellias, the Japanese stewartia is valued for its fall color, elegant form and, with age, beautiful bark patterns. Individual branch structure varies, so this is one you should pick out at the nursery. Some horticulturists prefer to plant stewartias in the spring. The Korean stewartia is a closely related species and will do the job just as well.

(Peter Hoey for The Washington Post/Photos by Paul W. Meyer/Morris arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania; Smooth Witherod photo by Mount Cuba Center) Shrubs

Small to medium shrubs function as accent plants and are useful foils to perennials, but larger shrubs work as screens and, moreover, form part of the architecture of the garden.

●Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis): Witch hazels come in many sizes and seasons of interest. The common native species, H. virginiana, is big and twiggy and difficult to place in a small domestic landscape. The Chinese witch hazel is remarkably fragrant, but the species grows to 15 feet or more. Goldcrest is a named variety that reaches a more manageable 10 feet or so. Princeton Gold is a smaller version, growing to six feet, with rich golden fall color. That’s the one I’d plant.

●Fothergilla (Fothergilla x intermedia): The fothergilla is related to witch hazel but grows as a more compact and compliant shrub. Two native species are commonly planted, both with superb fall color. The large fothergilla can reach 10 feet in height. The dwarf fothergilla grows to three to four feet. Mount Airy is a hybrid that reaches approximately six feet and has a characteristically rich fall tapestry of orange, red and red-purple.

●Smooth witherod (Viburnum nudum): Most people know the fragrant Korean spicebush viburnum of April, but other, more refinedviburnums deserve greater use. This includes the smooth witherod. Winterthur is a variety selected for its compact habit and glossy leaves, which turn a wine-red in the fall. The fruiting display — blue berry clusters — relies on the placement of a second, non-varietal V. nudum.

●White enkianthus (Enkianthus perulatus): Why this handsome shrub is still quite rare in gardens is a mystery. The red-vein enkianthus, more upright and open, is easier to find. At maturity, white enkianthus forms a bush that is six feet in height and width, but mounded and compact. The autumn color is a brilliant scarlet. Related to blueberries and azaleas, it prefers rich acid soil in full sun to part shade.

●Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia): The oakleaf hydrangea is a workhorse of the shrub border, attractive in every season. The foliage resembles monster oak leaves, and the shrub in time becomes large and structural. People plant it for its white flower panicles, but in autumn the leaves take on a deep burgundy-red color. The named variety Amethyst, which grows to 5 feet by 6 feet, is one of several new varieties developed for their shorter stature, compact growth and leaf-spot resistance.

Gardening Q&AHiggins will host a live Q&A on trees and other gardening topics Thursday at noon at live.washingtonpost.com.

Why More Autumn Leaves Are Red In America And Yellow In Europe: New Theory

A new theory provided by Prof. Simcha Lev-Yadun of the Department of Science Education- Biology at the University of Haifa-Oranim and Prof. Jarmo Holopainen of the University of Kuopio in Finland and published in the Journal New Phytologist proposes taking a step 35 million years back to solve the color mystery.

The green color of a tree’s leaves is mainly due to chlorophyll pigment. The change in color to red or yellow as autumn approaches is not the result of the leaves’ dying, but is rather the result of a series of processes – which differ between the red and yellow autumn leaves. When the green chlorophyll in leaves diminishes, the yellow pigments that already exist become dominant and give their color to the leaves. Red autumn leaves result from a different process: As the chlorophyll diminishes, a red pigment, anthocyanin, which was not previously present, is produced in the leaf. These facts were only recently discovered and led to a surge of research studies attempting to explain why trees expend resources on creating red pigments just as they are about to shed their leaves.

Explanations that have been offered vary and there is no agreement on this as of yet. Some research suggests that the red pigment is produced as a result of physiological functions that make the re-translocation of amino acids to the woody parts of the tree more efficient in setting up its protection against the potential damage of light and cold. Other explanations suggest that the red pigment is produced as part of the tree’s strategy for protecting itself against insects that thrive on the flow of amino acids. But whatever the answer is, these explanations do not help us understand why the process of creating anthocyanin, the red pigment, does not occur in Europe.

An evolutionary ecology approach infers that the strong autumn colors result from the long evolutionary war between the trees and the insects that use them as hosts. Insects tend to suck the amino acids from the leaves in the fall season, and later lay their eggs, to the detriment of the trees. Aphids are attracted to yellow leaves more than red ones. Trees that expend the energy to color their leaves red may benefit from fewer aphids and fewer aphid eggs. In this case too, the protective logic of red pigmentation may be sound, but why are there more yellow-leaved trees in fall in Europe, if red leaves are an advantage?

According to the theory provided by Prof. Lev-Yadun and Prof. Holopainen, until 35 million years ago, large areas of the globe were covered with evergreen jungles or forests composed of tropical trees. During this phase, a series of ice ages and dry spells transpired and many tree species evolved to become deciduous. Many of these trees also began an evolutionary process of producing red deciduous leaves in order to ward off insects. In North America, as in East Asia, north-to-south mountain chains enabled plant and animal ‘migration’ to the south or north with the advance and retreat of the ice according to the climatic fluctuations. And, of course, along with them migrated their insect ‘enemies’ too. Thus the war for survival continued there uninterrupted.

In Europe, on the other hand, the mountains – the Alps and their lateral branches – reach from east to west, and therefore no protected areas were created. Many tree species that did not survive the severe cold died, and with them the insects that depended on them for survival. At the end of the repeated ice ages, most tree species that had survived in Europe had no need to cope with many of the insects that had become extinct, and therefore no longer had to expend efforts on producing red warning leaves.

According to the scientists, evidence supporting this theory can be found in the dwarf shrubs that grow in Scandinavia, which still color their leaves red in autumn. Unlike trees, dwarf shrubs have managed to survive the ice ages under a layer of snow that covered them and protected them from the extreme condition above. Under the blanket of snow, the insects that fed off the shrubs were also protected – so the battle with insects continued in these plants, making it necessary for them to color their leaves red.

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