"Deciduous" is a designation indicating a plant sheds its leaves at the end of the growing season. The term is used primarily in reference to trees and shrubs, 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 and shrubs 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 and Shrubs
In my definition of broadleaf plants, I explain why deciduous trees shed their leaves in fall (and why they change color). It is essentially a coping mechanism, a way to winterize them in anticipation of 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 and shrubs 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. In an FAQ on lawn care, I discuss how long you can wait before raking. I also offer advice on the most effective way to remove leaves with a leaf blower. Depending on the plant-selection choices you have made in the past, you may also 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 the Sunburst honey locust pictured on the present page.
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 (usually from green to a brighter color, such as red, yellow or orange). After this brilliant display, they shed their foliage before winter and do not regain it until their buds unfurl in spring.
As examples of deciduous trees with great fall color, I list a few below. Coloration for these selections ranges from yellow or orange to red or purplish, and some can even produce multi-colored fall foliage. Click on the links to learn about the fall leaf color of the particular tree in question:
But not all deciduous trees offer vibrant fall color. Here is a short list of examples of trees whose fall foliage is underwhelming:
Short Lists of Deciduous Shrubs
As with trees, we can divide deciduous shrubs (bushes) into two categories: shrubs with nice fall foliage, and those whose leaves do not offer much value in autumn.
The following are examples of deciduous shrubs that I would grow for their fall foliage, alone:
- Diablo ninebark
- Burning bush
- Arrowwood viburnum
- Gold Mound spirea (although its spring foliage is even more colorful)
- Stewartstonian azalea
By contrast, these deciduous shrubs are grown primarily for their flowers, not for the fall colors of their leaves:
- Hydrangea shrubs (other than oakleaf hydrangea, which has splendid fall color)
- Rose of Sharon
- Butterfly bush
- Hardy hibiscus
- Flowering quince
Where to Go From Here
For small properties, growing bushes that furnish your yard with dazzling fall-foliage displays is a sensible alternative to growing trees such as sugar maple, which require more space. Consult my article on shrubs for fall color for ideas.