Deciduous Trees: Meaning, Lists of Examples

Plus Shrubs, Vines Whose Leaves Fall in Fall

Sunburst honey locust with its golden leaves.
Sunburst honey locust trees are deciduous. David Beaulieu

"Deciduous" is an adjective and means that the plant so described sheds its leaves at the end of the growing season. The term is used primarily in reference to trees, shrubs, and vines, in contrast with those that are "evergreen." It is pronounced dih-SIJ-oo-uhs.

To remember what "deciduous" means, try relating it to the word, "decadent." Both come from the Latin root meaning "fall." The leaves that deciduous trees, shrubs, and vines sported in summer fall in autumn, just as the grandeur of a once-mighty nation takes a mighty tumble after that nation has become decadent. The autumn season is alternately called "fall" precisely because it is during this season that the leaves fall from the deciduous trees.

How and Why Leaves Fall From Deciduous Trees, Shrubs, and Vines

Deciduous trees shed their leaves in fall to get ready for the cold winter to follow. As a bonus (for humans), the process yields the wonderful fall colors that we so admire.

But how, exactly, do the deciduous trees, shrubs, and vines shed their leaves? Science Made Fun cites Peter Raven, President of the Missouri Botanical Garden, to explain that these plants take an active part in the shedding process, rather than just waiting for a good wind to come along. Their leaves contain cells "that act like scissors," cutting them off from the main part of the tree in autumn. The cut is then closed. As a result, the winter's cold is sealed out, while precious water is sealed in.

Removing Those Fallen Leaves From Your Lawn in Autumn

Those colorful leaves look awesome while their trees are still wearing them, but they can cause homeowners headaches once they fall onto the grass. And yes, there is a practical reason why you should rake leaves off the lawn (it is not just a matter of aesthetics). Don't wait too long before raking: Putting it off can end up harming your lawn. Some methods of leaf blowing are more effective than others, so there are still ways to reduce the landscape maintenance involved if you're smart about it.

Depending on the plant-selection choices you have made in the past, you may have to clean up other plant debris while you're at it, ranging from pine needles to pods. If all of that sounds like way too much of a hassle, avoid growing messy trees and seek clean substitutes, such as Sunburst honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis Suncole).

Short Lists of Deciduous Trees

The best-known deciduous trees are the fall-foliage trees. The latter attract so-called "leaf peepers" in droves every autumn season when the color of their leaves changes. After this brilliant display, they shed their foliage before winter and do not regain it until their buds unfurl in spring.

Coloration of deciduous trees with great fall color ranges from yellow or orange to red or purplish, and some can even produce multi-colored fall foliage. Examples of great specimens for the landscape include:

  1. Autumn Blaze maple (Acer x freemanii Jeffersred) 
  2. Red maple (Acer rubrum)
  3. Sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
  4. White ash (Fraxinus americana)
  5. Maidenhair tree  (Ginkgo biloba)
  6. American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
  7. Red oaks (Quercus rubra)

But not all deciduous trees offer vibrant fall color, including the following examples:

  1. Catalpa  (Catalpa speciosa)
  2. Silk tree (Albizia julibrissin)
  3. Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)
  4. Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra Italica)

Short Lists of Deciduous Shrubs

We can divide deciduous shrubs, too into two categories: shrubs with nice fall foliage, and those whose leaves do not offer much value in autumn. For small properties, growing bushes with dazzling fall-foliage displays is a sensible alternative to growing trees such as sugar maple, which require more space. There are even shrubs that put on their best display of foliage in spring, such as Gold Mound spirea.

The following are examples of deciduous shrubs worth growing for their fall foliage, alone:

By contrast, these deciduous shrubs are grown primarily for their flowers, not for the fall colors of their leaves:

Deciduous Vines

As with trees and shrubs, vine plants can be classified as deciduous or evergreen. Realistically, however, there are few evergreen choices for the North, especially beyond zone 6. And, as you might expect, the ones robust enough to keep their leaves all winter (or most of the winter, at least) in very cold regions can be invasive; these include:

Some deciduous vines are also invasive, including the notorious Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). One of the best deciduous vines to grow is Arctic kiwi (Actinidia kolomikta Arctic Beauty), which bears tricolored leaves in spring (pink, white, and green).