Injecting fall colors into the landscape is about more than just planting red maples and other trees that display colorful leaves; don't forget shrubs! As this Top 10 List will show, there are many shrubs for fall color (and some vines), too. Some bear pretty berries, others colorful leaves. Still others exhibit both.
In this article ten of the best choices (in no particular order) are presented. Criteria for selection include not only autumn display value, but also how much the plant in... question has to offer at other times of the year. The shrubs and vines on this list can be grown in most parts of the U.S. (the average cold-hardiness zone range for them being from zone 4 to zone 8). Click the link next to the photo of any plant listed below that you wish to research further.
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The scientific name for oakleaf hydrangea plants is Hydrangea quercifolia; the latter is a reference to the plant's leaves, which are shaped something like those of oak trees. These bushes put out white flowers in summer that fade to a pinkish-brown in fall. But the plant's inclusion on this list is due to its foliage, not its flowers. Its oak leaf-like foliage turns reddish, bronzy-orange or purplish in the fall. It achieves a height of 4-6 feet and a spread of 4-6 feet.
But oakleaf... hydrangea goes above and beyond the call of duty, offering visual interest even at times when it has neither flowers nor colorful autumn leaves. This fact is due to its branches, which sport a peeling bark that is, well, appealing (pun intended). Oakleaf hydrangea is thus a great choice for creating four-season interest in your landscape, because it has something to offer year-round.
As with many examples on this list, while oakleaf hydrangea tolerates a bit of shade, for optimal coloration you should grow it in full sun.
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Sumac bushes may not be the first thing that comes to mind for providing fall colors in the landscape. In fact, they are more likely to be considered a weed. This is probably due to the fact that once a plant is identified as "sumac," homeowners often jump to the conclusion that the plant is "poison sumac." In reality, poison sumac would hardly ever be found in a front yard, unless your front yard is a swamp -- which is poison sumac's natural habitat. As illustrated in this... gallery of poison sumac pictures, the easiest way to distinguish poison sumac from the non-poisonous type is by comparing their berries.
The colorful leaves of the many types of non-poison sumac provide fall colors ranging from reddish or maroon to golden. Two such varieties are staghorn and smooth sumac. The widespread staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is a relatively tall variety (reaches 18 feet to 35 feet). Smooth sumac is another type widely encountered; its botanical name is Rhus glabra. This bush can grow to 10 feet tall at maturity. 'Tiger Eyes' (picture) is a cultivar with golden leaves.
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Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla major 'Mt. Airy') is a spherical, multi-stemmed shrub with white flowers in spring that carry a fragrant aroma. In fall, the dark green foliage of summer changes to colors of yellow, orange and scarlet. Reaching 6-10 feet high, the shrub spreads 5-9 feet. Fothergilla should be planted in a sunny or partially-sunny location on your landscape; the more sunlight it receives, the better your chances of its putting on a good display in autumn.
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Hamamelis x intermedia 'Arnold Promise' is one of those wonderful shrubs that bloom in early spring. In fact, it is prized as one of the very first plants to bloom in spring. If given sufficient sunlight, it can also develop the kind of magnificent fall foliage color that is shown in this photo. Its contribution to landscape color in the spring and fall make up for the fact that it offers little display value in summer or winter.Continue to 5 of 14 below.
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It is difficult to match oakleaf hydrangea (see above) for year-round interest, but Gold Mound spirea (picture) comes close, offering three-season interest:
- Spring foliage
- Summer flowers
- Fall color
In addition to the golden fall color that you would anticipate, based on its name, splashes of light red find their way onto the leaves in autumn.
But if you really want red, grow the shrub, 'Tor' spirea (Spiraea betulifolia 'Tor'). It reaches a height of 2-3 feet and spreads out to 2-3... feet wide. The shrub's foliage is dark green in summer, but its autumn foliage is red. In May, the plant bears small, white flowers in clusters.
Both perform best with full sunlight.
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Based on colorful leaves alone, burning bush shrubs (Euonymus alatus) would make the list. So why is burning bush missing in action here? Well, unfortunately, these fall color standouts are invasive plants. As an alternative, consider Virginia sweetspire. But in terms of what was considered the "best" burning bush when the plant was still recommended, the consensus at landscape nurseries seemed to be that the 'Rudy Haag' variety was the top of the line; as a true dwarf, it was... easy to maintain. The 'compactus' variety of burning bush has been extremely popular for years, too, but its name is more wishful thinking than reality -- it does not maintain a "compact" form as successfully as does 'Rudy Haag.' 'Rudy Haag' achieves a height of 3-5 feet and a spread 3-5 feet.
Part of the story behind burning bush's invasiveness is the fact that, while it prefers well-drained soil, it is not very particular about where it grows. Although burning bushes have more colorful leaves in fall when growing in sunny locations, they do tolerate shade, which is why they have been able to escape into wooded areas -- where they become a nuisance.
Likewise, burning bush tolerates drought -- to the extent that the plant will not readily die when deprived of optimal irrigation. However, insufficient water intake hinders the development of the colorful leaves that are its trademark.
Virginia sweetspire will spread, too, although it is not considered invasive in North America. It forms colonies via root-suckering. So if you like the appearance of this plant, you are in luck: You may end up with more of it than you started out with. The bush also flowers in spring, but, compared to the exquisite fall color, the blooms are not noteworthy.
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A number of the viburnums can furnish your yard with good fall color, given proper growing conditions. Korean spice viburnum (picture) is one. Some would say that the bush offers even more in spring, when it produces clusters of extremely fragrant flowers. Install it in a sunny spot, preferably near a window, porch, patio, or deck, where you will be able to fully appreciate that fantastic aroma.
Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) yields white flowers in May, which become an edible fruit at... harvest time. Fall color is offered not only by these bluish-black berries but also by colorful leaves (especially if grown in bright sunshine). Dark green foliage morphs to purple to reddish-bronze to a crimson in fall. It achieves a height of 12-15 feet and a spread 8-12 feet.
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Arrowwood viburnum bears white flowers in spring. In autumn, arrowwood viburnum shrubs give you a 2-for-1: nice fall foliage and blue berries. They can range anywhere from 6 feet tall to 15 feet tall.
This bush's colorful name is due to the fact that the hard and straight stems that emerge from its base were traditionally used in the making of arrow shafts.Continue to 9 of 14 below.
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The vine, Virginia creeper is commonly mistaken for poison ivy. The range of its fall color can be pretty wide (anywhere from a reddish-purple to a reddish orange). It is a gorgeous plant in autumn, but it can also be a nuisance, as is explained in the full article (click the link). The showiest coloration for this vine and for the following one (Boston ivy) will be achieved in full sunlight.
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Boston ivy is a close relative of Virginia creeper, both vines belonging to the genus, Parthenocissus. It is a toss-up as to which offers a better autumn display, although Boston ivy is the far better known of the two.
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Beautyberry is a novelty plant, thanks to the purple berries it bears in autumn (that's right, purple). It does not afford much landscape value at other times of the year.
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Another group of shrubs worth considering in this context is the chokeberries. Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) reaches a height of 6-10 feet and a spread of 3-5 feet. This shrub has white flowers in early spring, which become glossy red berries in the summer. In autumn the berry color can turn deeper, almost to purple, providing interesting fall color.Continue to 13 of 14 below.
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Viking black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa 'Viking') bears white flowers in May with dark green foliage. The foliage morphs first to red, then to purple in the fall. Reaching a height of 3-5 feet and spreading out to 3-5 feet, the plant tolerates wet soil better than most. The berries produced by this shrub grow in clusters and are a blackish-purple. Although not edible for humans, the bitter-tasting berries remain on the shrub well into the winter and serve as an emergency food source... for birds. The same is true for two other plants mentioned in this article: bittersweet and sumac. This is not an insignificant characteristic, considering the fact that many aficionados of fall color are also birdwatchers.
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There are three plants with "bittersweet" in their names. The plant referred to here is American bittersweet, a vine native to North America. Oriental bittersweet vines (Celastrus orbiculatus) are attractive, to be sure, but terribly invasive when removed from their homeland. For those shopping in North America, make sure you go to a reputable nursery, where you can trust that what you are buying is truly American bittersweet.
American bittersweet is a good choice for those serious about... providing the landscape with fall color. The berries, green in summer, bear a yellow husk in early fall. Even at this stage, they provide a truly striking display of fall color. But this initial treat is merely a foretaste of the splendor to come. For, as autumn progresses, the husk peels back, revealing an orange berry within. And as if that were not enough, the numerous leaves of the vine turn a vivid yellow.
By growing shrubs for fall color, instead of relying solely on trees, you bring the splendor of autumn leaves down closer to ground level, where you can enjoy them up-close and personal. Of course, it is not a matter of choosing one over the other: Complement the fall color offered by the shrubs and vines presented above by also growing outstanding fall-foliage trees. No tree shines more brightly in autumn than the maple. Click the link to view spectacular pictures of this fall stalwart for inspiration.