In case you hadn’t noticed, fall is in the air. You can smell it; the metallic air of summer has become sweeter. You can see it; spiders spin ever-widening webs. You can hear it; cicadas trill incessantly at dusk. Soon the deciduous trees and shrubs will herald the arrival of fall when their rich green foliage turns to gold and red – a change triggered by warm sunny days followed by a string of crisp nights.
For those partial to the yellow tones, a stunning choice is that classic street tree Ginkgo biloba (USDA Zones 3-8)
whose dainty fan-shaped leaves turn from bright green to lemon yellow as the nights lengthen. One of the most primitive plants (it is thought to have taken root 300 million years ago), but after flourishing for 200 million years, this ancient beauty suffered a decline and began to die out. Saved from extinction by Chinese monks who nurtured it in their temple gardens, today the noble ginkgo thrives worldwide. This graceful specimen must have full sun but tolerates heat, alkaline soil, some air pollution, and even the salt spread on roadways in winter. Although it’s a slow grower it may top 60 feet at maturity, but if you have the space, consider one of two special cultivars, the luminous ‘Autumn Gold’ or the slender ‘Fastigiata’. Do be sure that you select a male tree; the female ginkgo produces a stinky fruit that reeks like rotting flesh, a nasty odor fortunately not encountered often.
Another outstanding selection among those trees that turn golden yellow in fall, is the Katsura tree or Cercidiphyllum japonicum,
a real beauty that produces a different show throughout the year. In spring its round leaves emerge reddish purple, changing to blue-green in summer, and staging a vibrant golden display for the fall finale. Valued as a shade tree the pyramidal Katsura, hardy in USDA Zones 4-8, does best in full sun to part shade and moist soil, although it can tolerate mild drought once established. A favorite of many horticulturists the Katsura tree wins the award for an easy to grow outstanding ornamental specimen.
Moving from the cool yellows to the warmer orange hues, Cercis canadensis or Eastern Redbud (USDA Zones 4-8)
is prized among small landscape trees (some actually consider it a large shrub), a treasure for those gardeners with limited land. Growing no taller than 25 feet, redbud branches are covered with hot pink flowers in early spring before its leaves emerge, a vibrant display that shatters the gloom of winter overnight. The cultivar ‘Forest Pansy’ sports heart-shaped burgundy leaves, but if pink blooms are not your thing consider ‘Alba’ whose creamy white flowers give way to lustrous green leaves in summer. All the redbuds, native to Eastern and Central North America, thrive in full sun and hot summers, requiring little water as long as they get ample moisture in winter and spring. Choose the site for your tree carefully; the Eastern Redbud does not like to relocate.
To really set your garden aglow, find a spot in full or part sun in your USDA Zones 4-9 garden for a Sassafras tree, Sassafras albidium,
whose mitten-shaped leaves turn electric orange in the fall. Renown for its fragrance this medium sized tree or large shrub boasts multiple uses first recognized by Native Americans; the leaves are used to flavor teas, the roots give root beer its name, and its shredded leaves are used to thicken gumbo that famous Southern dish. To add to its many attributes the female sassafras tree produces dark blue berries beloved by birds and butterflies, most notably the Spicebush Swallowtail.
Give your sassafras regular water, and since it produces a long taproot don’t even think of moving it once it’s been planted.
Now for the reds – those glorious reds. An obvious choice for a spectacular fall display is the queen of all landscape trees, the elegant Acer palmatum, and the selection of Japanese maple cultivars is boundless. You need only choose the shape – upright or weeping – the size – from tall and stately to dwarf – the color – from green to orange to red – the shape of the leaf – from lobed to thread-like;
it’s only your taste that limits your choice. But for the most dramatic fall color, three varieties are standouts. If you have enough space to accommodate a 25-foot tree, consider ‘Osakazuki’, a large sturdy grower with finely cut leaves. ‘Osakazuki’ reigns supreme for brilliant fall color, changing from the deep green of summer to an intense scarlet in autumn. A slightly smaller variety, ‘Shishigashira’ is a slow grower rarely attaining more that 15 feet, and, for those of you who indulge your gardening passion on a balcony, this cultivar performs just as well in a container. The leaf of ‘Shishigashira’ is heavily curled and bunched up, hence its name – lion’s mane in Japanese. For those of you who have crammed every possible plant into your garden, but still must have just one A. palmatum, search out ‘Brandt’s Dwarf’ a shrubby variety no larger than 3 feet by 3 feet. The leaves of this little lovely emerge a plum red in spring, turning dark red, then rusty green in summer, and crimson in fall – a rainbow of color throughout the seasons. Most of the Japanese maples grow well in USDA Zones 5-9 and prefer regular water and filtered light to protect them from sunburn.
More pedestrian than the exotic Japanese maples, but still an old favorite for late fall crimson color is the tall street tree, Liquidambar styraciflua, or Sweetgum.
Although blessed by a lovely delicate shape, it is cursed by its spiny fruit, which litters sidewalks, driveways and lawns, so be prepared to keep the rake handy. The Liquidambar (USDA Zones 5-9) also puts on a show in winter when its deeply furrowed bark and corky winged branches are no longer camouflaged by its dense fragrant foliage. This tree relishes full sun and regular water – although it will put on a dramatic display even if planted in dry soil. To encourage a strong vertical trunk, prune the side branches when the tree is young, and your Liquidambar will grow into a regal beauty.
For those who have smaller gardens with no room for large trees you need not be bereft of fall color if you plant Heavenly Bamboo, Nandina domestica,
a well-behaved shrub that produces shades of yellow, apricot and crimson all at once. Although its colors are most vibrant if it’s planted in full sun, the Nandina can tolerate partial or even deep shade; your fall show simply will be more muted. Semi-evergreen in USDA Zones 6-9 this tough cutie, partial to moist soil, produces dainty white flowers in spring followed by bright red berries in fall and winter, a big draw for birds especially cedar waxwings and mockingbirds. Two of the most colorful cultivars are ‘Firepower’ whose lime green leaves turn fire engine red as the days shorten and ‘Gulf Stream’ a bushier and more compact variety growing 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide.
So as the days grow shorter and spirits sag at the sight of a flagging landscape, include in your garden a tree or shrub known for its fiery foliage and extend its life well into fall. Be aware though – climate conditions can affect the intensity of color; an extended drought will dampen the vibrancy of color, as will a wet fall or a sudden frost. But no worries; there’s always next year.
Tree and Shrub Sources
Ginkgo biloba – Meneerke bloem
Katsura tree – Jean-Pol GRANDMONT
Cercis canadensis – Jean-Pol GRANDMONT
Sassafras albidium – Berean Hunter
Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly – Haar Fager
Acer palmatum leaves – Abrahami
Liquidambar – ontologicalpuppy