Six on Saturday: Fall Color

Oakleaf Hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, in early November


Do you crave rich, warm color as autumn days grow cooler and shorter?  The trees have held onto their greenness longer this fall than anytime in memory.  We’ve been looking at one another and wondering, “When will the leaves finally change?  Will they change this year, or simply blow off and away?”  It seems that fall leaf color has shifted by three to four weeks over the past 30 years in our area. Many trees have simply dropped their leaves, or faded from green, to yellowish and quickly on to brown. 

Personally, I love a good rich scarlet tree in October.  We have abundant oranges and golds in our area, too, but the scarlet ones make my pulse quicken a beat.

Do you consider autumn color when you select a new tree or shrub?  That is usually lower on my list of considerations after whether they bloom and how large they’ll grow.  Lately, I’ve planted some Japanese maples that have tint in their leaves through the summer, and a crape myrtle that starts with deep burgundy leaves in the spring.  But since fall color lasts just as long as many spring flowers, like dogwood blossoms, it makes sense to consider November pleasures as much as April ones.


Dogwood turns rich scarlet earlier than most other trees turn each autumn.  Their drupes feed many species of song birds.


Here are a few of my personal favorites: Oakleaf Hydrangea ‘Snow Queen’ goes scarlet early in the season and holds onto those gorgeous leaves long past the time when most of our trees have gone bare.  This is a large shrub, with an open habit, large leaves and huge flower panicles.  It will take a space at least 8′-10′ wide and deep in your garden if you want to show it to best advantage.  But this gorgeous shrub has no ‘off’ season.  By the time the leaves finally blow away, new leaves and flower buds have begun to grow.  Its exfoliating bark adds interest through the winter.  But for big, bold scarlet leaves that last and last, it doesn’t get better than this.

Dogwood, Cornus florida, is a common native tree in our area that crops up randomly where birds drop the seeds.  There are beautiful hybrids out there, but we just grow the species, and love it year round.  In the spring, the trees cover themselves with white flowers.  These relatively small trees have a beautiful, graceful form.  By late summer, the drupes begin to turn scarlet and attract songbirds, and the dogwood’s leaves are one of the first trees to begin to turn each year.  They grow to a deep, rich scarlet before they fall by late November.  Even in winter, the trees are like living sculptures, covered in plump buds, awaiting warmer weather to begin blossoming all over again.


Sumac sports scarlet leaves and burgundy berries.  Here, it is just beginning to turn in mid-October of 2014.


Sumac trees, Rhus species, might be considered weedy by some, and I’m one of those apostates for much of the summer.  They have coarse foliage and an undisciplined habit.  They spread themselves around unashamedly and one tree quickly becomes a thicket.  But oh, once autumn arrives, those huge compound leaves turn a lovely shade of red and the clusters of drupes take on a warm, coffee brown color.  They are quite eye-catching when growing in groves on the side of the road. 

Grow these along the edge of a wooded area or in a meadow, or just take a drive in the country in late October or early November and admire them.  Sumacs are wonderful native plants for supporting wildlife.  They offer nectar in early summer and food for birds through fall and winter.  They sequester carbon, hold the soil against erosion, and provide great perches for birds.  I’ve learned to appreciate them, but wouldn’t choose them for a more formal garden area.




The Ginko tree, Ginko biloba, the oldest species of deciduous broad-leaf tree known anywhere in the world, is also one of the most stunning trees each autumn.  Each small, delicate leaf turns a clear, bright unblemished golden yellow and the tree stands tall and proud like a fiery torch for days or weeks, before a good wind comes along and sweeps that golden bling from branches to ground.  The leaves, which resemble the individual leaflets on a maidenhair fern frond, don’t travel far, and so the tree sports a golden ‘skirt’ for a while before the show is over. 

Ginko isn’t native to North America, but it is lovely.  Just please, make sure you get a male tree.  The female trees produce a fruit which is messy and odoriferous.  The ancient Chinese learned to use parts of the tree in their traditional medicine and as food, and the supplement remains popular. 

I have a Ginko in a pot on our deck that I’ll need to move into the garden after its leaves fall this year.  It makes a great pot tree for its first several years, but eventually grows into a full size tree, if you don’t train it as a bonsai.  Of course, why limit the size of such a gorgeous tree?  Ginko makes a stunning and long-lived street tree, or a lovely focal point in your garden design.

Maples of all sorts are lovely in the autumn, as well.  There are so many species available, each with its unique leaf shape and autumn color.  Maples are so widespread that there are varieties suited to most areas of the country.  Red maples are native here in coastal Virginia, and are always eye-catching when their leaves turn each fall.




These are just a few of my favorite trees in autumn.  Scarlet oak trees turn a beautiful shade of clear red, and sweet gum trees sometimes have purple leaves for a brief time.  Sourwood trees turn gold and then scarlet, and Aralia spinosa may turn yellow, scarlet, or even purple.  So many factors determine the colors of leaves in fall.  It is a little bit genetics, a lot reflects the growing season just ending, and of course the temperature, as days grow shorter, determines the intensity and duration of color, as well.

The colorful weeks of autumn feel like a fitting celebration to carry us from the verdant greens of summer into the barren winter.  Only, winter doesn’t have to seem so barren with a little planning and a few evergreen trees, shrubs and perennials scattered about. Green is a glorious color, too, and we get more mileage from our garden space when we celebrate greens in all of their shades, hues, and finishes as well.  What is lovelier than a deep green holly tree dripping in scarlet berries on a December day? Every season offers its own beauties and pleasures.  We just need to plan to squeeze the most enjoyment from them all.



Woodland Gnome 2020


Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.


About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

One response to “Six on Saturday: Fall Color

  1. Autumn foliar color is not such a concern here. There is plenty of floral color throughout the year. However, I happen to be very fond of it. The orchards of the Santa Clara Valley were not exactly landscape features, but colored nicely in the background.

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