Our Favorite Shrubs for Fall Color

Our Favorite Shrubs for Fall Color

Here at Cornell Farm, we love fall! Cooler temperatures and rain clouds provide the perfect conditions to help new plants get established in our Pacific Northwest gardens. But our love for the season doesn't stop there: Shorter, cooler days also signal a wide variety of plants to put on a colorful show that punctuates the end of the growing season with a vibrant exclamation point. Although colorful deciduous trees may be the first plants to come to mind when thinking of fall, designing a garden with fall interest doesn't have to stop at the canopy level! To help inspire you, we've put together a list of some of our favorite shrubs that will provide autumn interest in your garden year-after-year — whether that's through brilliant leaves, bright berries, or late-season blooms.


Along with their cousins the witchhazels, fothergillas are the definition of a multi-season plant. In the spring, these Southeast-native shrubs are covered in distinctive, white, brush-like flowers that give way to blue-green, scalloped leaves that hold up through the summer months. And as if that weren't enough, they keep the display going with a brilliant fall show that condenses all of the the fiery autumn hues of Southern Appalachia onto one plant. It's a show that isn't to be missed!

Virginia Sweetspire

Itea virginica is another plant hailing from the Appalachian Mountains that boasts a colorful fall show. This relatively low-growing shrub will take partial shade and features racemes of white blooms in the early summer. When fall rolls around, their leaves turn red-to-burgundy, often persisting on the plant for some time. Over many seasons, they can spread by suckers to form large clumps — especially in moist conditions — but the plant is easy to reign back in. The classic garden variety 'Henry's Garnet' boasts improved fall color and a shorter stature (staying under 4 feet), and 'Little Henry' offers the same benefits in a slightly smaller package (to 3 feet). We particularly love Virginia Sweetspire because it is one of the first plants in our garden to color up, and one of the last to drop its leaves. In mild winters, it may even carry a few burgundy leaves until spring.

Oakleaf Hydrangea

Hydrangea quercifolia is another great shrub for partial shade, and we're thankful that it's made its way from the East Coast to our West Coast gardens. As one might expect from a hydrangea, it boasts beautiful, elongated clusters of white blooms in the summer, but unusually for the genus, we think it's also worth growing for its large palmate leaves! These beauties provide a beautiful texture in a woodland garden, and as it starts to cool in the fall, they take on a dark burgundy-to-red hue. Although the oakleaf hydrangea is deciduous, you'll often find a few of these gorgeous garnet leaves lingering on the plant well into the winter.

Red Twig Dogwoods

Many dogwoods feature beautiful crimson fall color, but shrubby varieties bring those firey hues down to the ground layer, which is why we've been sure to include them on this list. Many, like our native Cornus sericea, also boast yellow-to-red stems that continue the colorful display through the winter months. Nowadays, there are many varieties to choose from, offering foliage that stands out year-round, including selections with variegated foliage, which only become more beautiful as their creamy margins take on a pink hue as the season draws to a close.


Callicarpa is a genus of plants that provides seasonal interest in a place you might not have considered: berries! And these aren't your typical red or dark purple fruits, either. In most cases, they are a stunning magenta that calls from across the garden, crying "look at me!" The berries often hang around even after the leaves have turned yellow and fallen from the shrub's branches, but eventually the birds will take notice and gobble them up, making this a good choice of plant for wildlife gardens, as well.

High-Bush Blueberries

Although traditionally grown for their delicious summer fruits, blueberries have been getting more attention in recent years as double-duty plants with both edible and ornamental qualities — a movement we fully support! Many modern Vaccinium cultivars have been bred to be more compact for use in the landscape, with foliage that looks perfectly at home in an ornamental bed: Varieties like 'Sunshine Blue' and 'Bountiful Blue' offer handsome glaucous blue foliage during the growing season, and others like 'Peach Sorbet' boast colorful new growth in shades of peach and pink. But the ornamental quality we love the most? In fall, most deciduous blueberry bushes transform into bright orange, scarlet, and burgundy beacons in the landscape.


Like their callicarpa counterparts, caryopteris offer fall color in not only an unexpected form, but an unusual hue, too! Sometimes known by the common name blue mist shrub, these woody members of the mint family are covered in a haze of blue-purple flowers from late summer through fall. And if you couldn't tell from the photo, they are absolutely beloved by the bees, making them an important source of late-season nectar. From a design perspective, we think their cool-toned flowers play wonderfully off of the oranges and reds of fall foliage plants while echoing the hues of late-season perennials like asters, making them the perfect choice to tie together a late-season pollinator garden!

Deciduous Viburnums

Many deciduous viburnums like the Viburnum trilobum pictured above, offer delightful fall color in the form of fiery foliage that takes on orange, red, and purple hues as temperatures cool. And if the birds manage to leave them alone for long enough, the display is enhanced by bright berries that adorn their branches this time of year — the delayed product of flowers from earlier in the year. These are truly multi-season (and wildlife-friendly) plants!

Smoke Bush

Known variously as smoketree or smoke bush, plants in the genus Cotinus are actually large shrubs that offer multiple seasons of interest in a stately package. In spring, mature plants send up airy panicles of flowers that look almost like clouds, earning them their smoky moniker. And many of the most popular cultivars sport burgundy foliage during the growing season. But in fall, their leaves can take on brilliant hues ranging from orange to scarlet. Interestingly, these beauties are closely related to sumacs, which get a shout-out later on our list, so clearly there's something to be said for family resemblance!

Panicle Hydrangeas

Unlike their oakleaf cousins, panicle hydrangeas aren't particularly known for their fall foliage — although in a good year, some varieties may don more autumnal hues before shedding their leaves. Rather, we have included them on this list for the pop of fall color they offer in the form of their fabulous flower heads! Although their blooms emerge a bright chartreuse-to-white in the summer, as the season progresses, they age to a deep pink that can approach red in some modern cultivars. And because these blooms hold their color for quite some time as they persist on the plant, they are an invaluable — if unexpected — source of fall color.


The lovely Rhus typhina 'Tiger Eyes' pictured above is just one of the many garden-worthy sumacs found in the nursery trade. Like most Rhus species and cultivars, this small, spreading shrub features pinnately compound leaves that bring a delightful, ferny texture to the garden. And in fall, these leaves are some of the first to take on autumnal hues in our gardens, brightening to a lovely gold that continues to morph through orange and scarlet as the season progresses. And if that weren't enough, each branch is tipped with clusters of cinnamon-colored fruits that are shaped like upturned paintbrushes, which persist in their dried form even after the leaves drop, offering added interest for fall and beyond! Oh, and did we mention? These plants are tough! Their tolerance of poor, dry soils makes them an excellent choice for stabilizing slopes and banks in style.

Honorable Mentions

There are so many shrubs to add beauty to the fall garden that we couldn't give them all their own spot on this list. But below, you will find a few other options that we think deserve some attention, too:

  • Firethorns (Pyracantha spp.) offer bright berries in late summer and early fall, in autumnal reds, oranges, and yellows. Their arching habit is particularly well-suited to being trained against a wall or support.
  • Burning Bush (Euonymous alatus) owes its common name to its bright red fall color, and is an old-fashioned garden classic for this reason.
  • Barberries (Berberis spp.) are commonly grown for their often colorful foliage, upright habit, and easy care. Although many of the most common cultivars offer burgundy foliage throughout the growing season, they color up even more in fall. Just watch out for their thorns!
  • Harlequin Glorybower (Cledodendrum trichotomum) offers unusual blue fruits nestled within bright red calyxes that are quite showy in the fall garden. Plus, kids and adults both love their peanut butter-scented leaves and summer flowers that smell like jasmine.
  • Dwarf Crape Myrtles (Lagerstroemia spp.) offer good fall color and attractive, peeling bark, and there are many dwarf cultivars that remain shrub-sized.
  • Dwarf Ginkgos (Ginkgo biloba cvs.) offer clear, golden yellow fall foliage that shines in the landscape. While the straight species can grow incredibly tall, many dwarf varieties, like Mariken, remain compact and shrubby. It's worth noting, though, that they have a habit of dropping all of their foliage at once on the first truly cold night of the season, so have your rake ready!
  • Laceleaf Japanese Maples (Acer palmatum var. dissectum), although technically trees, tend to grow in a low, weeping habit that brings their gorgeous fall color down to shrub level.
  • Fall-flowering grasses, while not shrubs, do have shrub-like presence in the garden because of their size. In addition to gorgeous flower heads, many cultivars offer foliage that takes on gorgeous shades of red and burgundy in the fall, including many varieties of bluestem, Miscanthus, Panicum, and Pennisetum.
If you're looking to add even more fall interest to your garden, but a bit higher up, be sure to check out our favorite trees for fall color in a separate blog post!

Fall Planting

If you’d like to add more fall interest to your garden but could use a little help along the way, Cornell Farm offers professional Garden Coaching and Planting Services to assist gardeners new and old. Whether you want to benefit from a fresh set of eyes on your space to imagine the possibilities or you have something in mind and just need help with the grunt work, we're here to help.