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. Read on to find out characteristics and examples of deciduous trees.
What Is a Deciduous Tree?
A deciduous tree sheds its broad, flat leaves at the end of the growing season. It contrasts with most trees that are evergreen (which typically retain needle foliage throughout seasons) and coniferous trees (usually evergreens that produce cones). However, there are deciduous conifer trees, such as golden larch and dawn redwood. You can also tell if a tree is deciduous because it will be round versus the upside-down cone shape of an evergreen.
Why Deciduous Trees, Shrubs, and Vines Lose Leaves
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? 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 cut these dead leaves 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.
Rake Fallen Leaves to Preserve Lawn
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: leaves can be harmful to non-native turf grasses. 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').
Deciduous Trees That Have the Best Fall Colors
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.
The 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:
- Red maple (Acer rubrum)
- Sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
- Maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba)
- American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
- Red oaks (Quercus rubra)
But not all deciduous trees offer vibrant fall color, including the following examples:
- Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)
- Silk tree (Albizia julibrissin)
- Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)
- Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra Italica)
- Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum)
Which Fall-Worthy Deciduous Shrubs to Choose
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:
- Diablo ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius 'Monlo')
- Burning bush (Euonymus alata)
- Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)
- Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)
- Stewartstonian azalea (Rhododendron x Gable 'Stewartstonian')
By contrast, these deciduous shrubs are grown primarily for their flowers, not for the fall colors of their leaves:
- Hydrangea shrubs (Hydrangea spp.), other than oakleaf hydrangea (H. quercifolia), which has splendid fall color
- Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)
- Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii)
- Hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos)
- Flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa)
- Common lilacs (Syringa vulgaris)
Beware of Invasive 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:
- English ivy (Hedera helix)
- Wintercreeper (Eonymus fortunei var. radicans)
- Winter jasmine (Jasmina nudiflorum)
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).