Native Shrubs for Bright Fall Foliage

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf's a flower. --Albert Camus

One of the greatest shows in the natural world occurs yearly in the forests and fields of the eastern United States as colorful leaves paint the autumn landscape. For this we can thank the native deciduous hardwood forests that make up most of the Northeast.   We tend to take this spectacular fall show for granted, but actually colorful fall foliage is limited to just three regions of the world: portions of eastern Asia, a small area of central South America, and large portions of North America with the prime area occurring in New England.  This is because colorful foliage requires the convergence of several factors, such as moisture, day length, latitude, plant species, temperature, and even the mineral content of the soil.

To provide the most varied fall color, as well as the longest lasting on your property, there are many species of native deciduous shrubs that you can add.  Providing highlights of yellows, oranges, reds, burgundies and plum to your autumn palette over an extended period will result in a much more interesting landscape.

With the fall planting season approaching, you can add all sorts of native plants to your yard. They will have plenty of time to root and get ready for the long winter ahead.  With this in mind, following are some comments and my choices of the ten great native plants for fall leaf color.

Note that because of the daily irrigation routine at nurseries, container plants rarely exhibit their potential for fall color---but when they do become established in your garden, you're in for a treat.  Also, very generally speaking, plants in full sun tend to have fall color with more reds or oranges. In the shade, fall color tends to be more yellow.

1.   Winterberry Holly, (Ilex verticillata), is a deciduous holly. In mid-autumn, however, its slender branches are draped with small but numerous red berries right to the branch tip.  It looks spectacular in winter providing color well into February when it is most needed.  Two popular cultivars are 'Winter Red' and 'Red Sprite'. It is dioecious, meaning that you will need to purchase at least one male for every three to five female plants and to plant the male in close proximity.

2.  Oakleaf Hydrangea,  (Hydrangea quercifolia) is one of the few hydrangeas native to the United States.  It is a dramatic, white-blooming shrub with four seasons of interest. The Oakleaf gets its name from the shape of its beautiful large leaves. These leaves often turn colors of brilliant red, orange, yellow and burgundy in the fall if planted in a sunny location with a little afternoon shade.  The plant can grow 6 to 8 feet tall or kept smaller with regular pruning.  In winter, the bark has an interesting shape and pleasant light brown color.

3.  Virginia Sweetspire 'Henry's Garnet' (Itea virginica) is an understory shrub native to moist woods. White, fragrant flowers arch and cascade above the foliage beautifully on drooping racemes (elongated clusters) 4 to 10 inches long in early- to midsummer.  'Henry's Garnet' is a truly outstanding selection. Fall foliage turns deep burgundy. The colorful leaves seem to hold on forever, too, sometimes persisting well into the winter. Grow 'Henry's Garnet' in moist to average soil in full sun or light shade. Expect a happy mature plant to be 6 feet tall and at least that wide.

4.  Highbush cranberry (Viburnum edule) Another outstanding fall item is which turns a dark, frosty red in the fall but sports bright cherry red berries until the cedar waxwings find them! 

5.  Half-high blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum 'Northblue') after the berries come some of fall's reddest foliage. Blueberries can tolerate zone 3-7 conditions and like moist to wet soil in sunny locations. This variety has a manageable size even for the small space gardener.

6. Dwarf Fothergilla, (Fothergilla gardenii ) is a compact, slow-growing, deciduous shrub with a dense, mounded, upright-spreading habit which typically grows 2-3' (less frequently to 4') tall and as wide.  Ivory white bottlebrush-like flowers appear in spring, usually before the foliage emerges.  The Rounded to oblong, leathery, dark green leaves turn varying shades of red, orange and yellow in fall.

7. Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is one of New England's premier native understory trees.   It is a deciduous, medium-sized tree that grows to heights of 30-50 ft.  Sourwood is brilliant in fall when the leaves turn red and scarlet and sometimes almost purple.  The tree is also spectacular in late spring when in bloom. Due to the similarity of the flowers and its fragrance, this tree is also commonly called the lily-of-the-valley tree.  Sourwood is difficult to transplant successfully so it is best to obtain small plants in containers.

8.  Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) bears white flowers in spring.  Viburnums native to North America don't possess the intense, spicy fragrance of their Asian cousins.  However they do offer a fabulous fall display and abundant fruit clusters, popular with birds and wildlife. In autumn, arrowwood viburnum foliage changes to yellow, red or reddish-purple and also features bluish berries in clusters. Its fruit is eaten by several species of birds, including: bluebirds, cardinals, mockingbirds and robins and many use the shrubs for nesting and protection. They reach a height of 6'-15', with a similar spread.

9.  Dogwood (Cornus Florida) Visually appealing and magnets for wildlife, these plants are bound to please both the gardener and naturalist in you.  Our native dogwoods have four-season appeal. With spring come showy flowers. Summer brings red berries that contrast nicely with the leaves. Autumn leaves are eye-catching, with shades of burgundy, red and orange. They are understory small trees and like to have a partially shaded location.

10.  Bluestar (Amsonia Hubrechtii)  is an uncommon native perennial.  It is an erect, clump-forming plant that is primarily grown in cultivation for its late spring blue spring flowers, feathery green summer foliage that  turns an beautiful bright gold in autumn. The foliage is feathery, soft-textured, and needle-like.

These are just a few of the wonderful native plants that you can consider to bring more colorful fall interest to your property. 
 

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