Fall is one of our favorite seasons for so many reasons — the chill in the morning air, the orange and yellow gourds that decorate our porches, and the long-awaited arrival of pumpkin spice lattes at the Cafe. But autumn also excites us because of all the design potential in the garden, so much of which often goes untapped! Most gardeners have spring covered, but there are plenty of beautiful plants whose peak season is in the fall. With a little planning, a garden with four seasons of interest is easily within your reach. Plus, with rains on their way to help new plants get established in the Pacific Northwest, fall is the perfect time to add a bit of color to your landscape for immediate impact.
To help inspire you, we've put together a list of some of our favorite trees that will provide autumn interest in your garden year-after-year — whether that's through brilliant leaves, bright berries, or late-season blooms.
If you have space for just one fall-color plant in your garden, you can't go wrong with a Japanese maple. Like most maples, their leaves put on a colorful fall show in hues of yellow, orange, and red, but their modest stature makes them suitable for even smaller home landscapes. Varieties that boast burgundy foliage in the summer almost always feature scarlet to orange-scarlet fall foliage, and select cultivars like 'Bihou' and 'Sango-kaku' feature colorful bark that not only enhances the fall display, but provides a statement in the garden through the winter months, as well.
Nyssa sylvatica is a beautiful tree for fall color, offering drop-dead gorgeous reds and oranges that epitomize fall foliage. The cultivar 'Wildfire' in particular offers exceptional color in autumn, in addition to new growth that emerges a glossy burgundy for added interest throughout the growing season. But you really can't go wrong with the straight species or any of the other varieties frequently encountered in the trade.
Kousa Dogwoods & Hybrids
Most dogwood trees put on fall color that ranges from deep burgundy-purple to clear red, but some of our favorites are the disease-resistant kousa dogwoods and hybrids with our native Cornus nutallii and the East Coast native Cornus florida. The variety pictured above is one of our absolute favorites: The handsomely variegated Cornus x rutgersensis 'Celestial Shadow.' In fall, the chartreuse leaf margins color up dramatically, offering a kaleidoscopic display of pinks, purples, and reds.
Stewartia pseudocamellia is perhaps the quintessential four-season tree. In the summertime, these small-to-medium trees are dotted with luminous, white camellia-like blossoms at a time when few other trees are flowering. And while their emerald green foliage is lovely in its own right, in fall, they trade in their verdant hues in favor of a palette of radiant oranges and reds. As if that weren't enough, mature specimens also offer beautiful bark that flakes off to reveal a patchwork of orange, cream, and green that really stands out in our rainy Pacific Northwest winters. You'll definitely want to place this tree somewhere you can see it year-round because it's just that good.
Full disclosure: Most any maple would be fit for inclusion on a list of fall foliage plants, but there are a few species and cultivars known to color up more reliably. If you have room for a large shade tree, red maples — and specifically Acer rubrum ‘Red Sunset’ — offer stunning fall foliage in bright scarlet hues. The straight species is one of the most abundant deciduous trees in Eastern North America, and along with sugar maple, forms the backbone of the colorful fall display in popular "leaf peeping" destinations like Vermont, so you know this fall color is the real deal.
Heptacodium isn't particularly well-represented in home landscapes, and we think that's a shame. While it doesn't offer much in the way of fall foliage, it doesn't need to because it offers something else: flowers. In fact, if we didn't know better, we'd say it bloomed twice — and in a different color, no less! What's actually going on is that the dainty white blooms that the tree sends out in late summer happen to be surrounded by bracts. As the flowers mature, the bracts age from green to red, and when the flowers finally fall from the tree, the colorful bracts are left behind, giving the appearence of a second bloom in early fall! Even after the tree defoliates, its peeling tan bark provides winter interest until it leafs out again in spring.
The combination of Pieris-like blooms and bright-scarlet leaves make Oxydendrum arboreum instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with this unusual tree. Hailing from Southern Appalachia where they are prized for the honey produced from their blooms, sourwoods are one of the first trees that begin showing color in the landscape, reaching crescendos of glowing scarlet by the time many other trees are just beginning to turn. Even in its native range, it grows slowly, but the display is well worth the wait.
Crabapples are generally thought of as spring-interest plants, but we think that should change! While it's true their spring blooms are showstopping, that's just half the story. With the approach of fall, the ovary of each white-to-pink flower develops into a small, pendant fruit that creates a stunning display when viewed en masse. Their foliage display may be more modest, but these bright orange and red fruits more than make up for it, providing a second season of interest that echoes the colors of autumn leaves in the landscape — and can persist for quite some time on the trees' branches. Plus, the fruits are beloved by wildlife, and the birds that will flock to your yard add a different dimension to the fall display.
As it is the sole living species in its order, Ginkgo biloba is often considered a living fossil, and we're glad these trees have stuck around through the ages! They offer distinctive, fan-shaped leaves throughout the growing season. But in fall, they take on a clear, golden hue that shines in the landscape, standing out prominenetly among more common oranges and reds. It's worth noting that they have a habit of dropping all of their foliage at once on the first truly cold night of the season, but we think this color alone is worth keeping your rake handy!
There are so many trees to add beauty to your garden in the fall. But below, you will find a few other options that deserve some attention, too:
- Serviceberries (Amelanchier cvs.) are great understory trees that offer wildlife and ornamental value from spring through fall. The cultivar Autumn Brilliance (Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance') in particular offers excellent fall color.
- Harlequin Glorybower (Cledodendrum trichotomum) offers unusual blue fruits nestled within bright red calyxes that are quite showy in the fall garden. Whether you consider it a small tree or large shrub, we can all agree that this tree packs a fragrant punch even outside of fall: Their leaves smell like peanut butter, and their summer flowers are deliciously jasmine-scented.
- Crape Myrtles (Lagerstroemia spp.) offer good fall color and attractive, peeling bark, and we're glad they've become more popular in West Coast gardens in recent years.
- Mountain Ashes (Sorbus spp.) offer not only bright red fall fruits, but pinnate leaves that can take on gorgeous yellow-orange hues in fall.
If you're looking to add even more fall interest to your garden below the canopy level, be sure to check out our favorite shrubs for fall color in a separate blog post!
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.