12 Trees With Brilliant Fall Color Plus Other Advantages

Sugar maple with orange fall leaves.

Scott Perry/Aurora/Getty Images

There are many deciduous trees that offer spectacular fall color. But fall is only one season of the year, and the best landscape trees will offer something of notable value for other seasons, too. A tree might be excellent at tolerating urban street conditions, for example. Or a particular maple might also be a great source of sap for making maple syrup. Don't settle for foliage that is spectacular only in fall, when you could have one that also offers colorful spring flowers or fruit that feeds birds in summer.

Here are 12 deciduous trees to consider, each offering not only great autumn color but also at least one other notable feature.

  • 01 of 12

    'Sunburst' Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis 'Suncole')

    Sunburst honeylocust foilage

    David Beaulieu

    The honeylocust typically produces a very nice bright yellow fall foliage, but the 'Sunburst' cultivar is even more interesting, since its fall foliage includes a touch of green mixed into the yellow. It also has golden-yellow foliage in the spring, which then transitions through deep green before returning to golden yellow in fall. As an additional benefit, this tough customer is a good street tree, tolerant of drought, road salt, and pollution. Unlike other honeylocust trees, it is thornless and seedless and is a very neat tree in the landscape. 'Sunburst' grows to about 35 feet.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 7
    • Color Variation: Golden spring foliage, green summer foliage, yellow-and-green fall color
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Rich, moist, well-drained soil
  • 02 of 12

    River Birch (Betula nigra)

    Fall foliage of river birch tree

    David Beaulieu

    River birch is a colorful tree in the fall, but to stop there would be to shortchange it. This is a great choice for achieving year-round interest in your landscaping because the river birch's best feature is not the fall color, but rather its fascinating peeling bark, which is there for you to enjoy winter, spring, summer, and fall. As an added benefit, river birch trees tolerate wet areas better than many other plants. River birch grows to 40 to 70 feet tall.

    River birch may be one of the more popular birch trees used in landscaping in North America, but other types do exist and have their benefits. The classic paper birch has bark with white color, while yellow birch offers an interesting golden bark. Other birches have a weeping form. All of these trees display beautiful yellow leaves in autumn.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 9
    • Color Variation: Dark green leaves turning yellow in fall; attractive peeling bark in white and reddish-brown
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Moist, well-drained soil; tolerates wet conditions
  • 03 of 12

    Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica)

    Fall foliage of swamp tupelo tree.

    David Beaulieu

    The spectacular scarlet fall color is just one great feature of the black gum tree (sometimes known as tupelo). Growing 30 to 50 feet, this is another tree with excellent tolerance for wet soil, even adapting to standing water. It has blackish fruits that are a favorite food of birds. Adding to the beauty of the fall color is the shininess of the leaves. If you are buying a black gum tree intending to achieve optimal fall color in your landscape, select the 'Autumn Cascades' cultivar, which has a weeping growth habit.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
    • Color Variation: Dark green spring and fall leaves; bright scarlet fall color
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Medium-moisture to wet soil
  • 04 of 12

    Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

    Sugar maple tree

     

    dszc / Getty Images

    Maple trees are the royals of the fall foliage world in North America. Tourists dubbed "leaf peepers" sometimes drive hundreds of miles to witness the magnificent fall foliage displays in places like the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Different types of maples display brilliant yellow, red, orange, or burgundy fall colors, and the color of an individual tree can sometimes vary from year to year.

    Within the Acer genus, the sugar maples (Acer sacharum) offer the unique benefit of sap that can be tapped and boiled down to make delicious maple syrup. Growing 40 to 80 feet, sugar maples are relatively slow-growing trees with large leaves that are good as yard or street trees.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8
    • Color Variation: Medium green spring and summer foliage; yellow, orange, or red fall color
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Medium-moisture, well-drained soil
    Continue to 5 of 12 below.
  • 05 of 12

    Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

    Japanese maple foilage

    David Beaulieu

    Japanese maples have a beauty all their own. Many types have colorful leaves not just in autumn, but during other seasons as well. Most types grow 10 to 25 feet, but 'Crimson Queen' Japanese maple is a dwarf type favored by lovers of weeping trees. The finely lobed leaves of Japanese maple are especially attractive from a close distance. This species is popular for Japanese garden designs, and with aficionados of the art of bonsai.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 8
    • Color Variation: Light green, dark green, or burgundy summer foliage; yellow, red-purple, or bronze fall color
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Rich, moist soil; prefers slightly acidic soil
  • 06 of 12

    Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)

    Shagbark hickory tree

     

    Mark Turner / Getty Images

    Several species of the Carya genus of hickory trees exhibit attractive golden brown fall color, but the shagbark hickory also has bark that exfoliates and peels in long strips that give the tree great winter interest. This species of hickory also provides edible nuts, and its wood is excellent as fuel for smoking meats or for use in furniture. The shagbark hickory grows 70 to 90 feet tall and makes an excellent shade tree.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8
    • Color Variation: Yellow-green spring and summer foliage; golden-brown fall color
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Moist, well-drained loam
  • 07 of 12

    Beech (Fagus Spp.)

    Beech tree

     

    Stefan Rotter / Getty Images

    Beech trees and shagbark hickory trees have several things in common: lovely yellow-golden leaves in fall, beautiful bark, and edible nuts. While shagbark hickory has the advantage when it comes to edible nuts, beech trees have two notable advantages when it comes to fall foliage—they change color later in the season, and they hold their leaves for a longer period of time. Two species of beech, American beech (Fagus grandifolia) and European beech (F. sylvatica), also have attractive gray bark that adds winter interest. And one cultivar, tricolor beech (F. sylvatica 'Tricolor') has colorful variegated leaves that are attractive in spring and summer, as well as in fall. Beech trees grow to a mature height of 20 to 80 feet, depending on the variety.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9, depending on species
    • Color Variation: Dark green summer foliage, golden bronze fall color
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Rich, moist, well-drained soil
  • 08 of 12

    American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

    American sweetgum tree

     

    Don Paulson Photography / Getty Images

    American sweetgum can be as colorful in fall as any tree—at least when climate and conditions cooperate. You may not get such a spectacular show every autumn, but when you do, you will revel in the mixture of colors— red, orange, purple, gold, yellow, and green. The gumballs produced by the sweetgum is of interest to those interested in crafts, since they can be used in wreaths, kissing balls, and other projects. If you are not a craft person, though, you might want to choose a cultivar that doesn't produce the messy gumballs. Sweetgum trees typically grow to be 60 to 80 feet tall with large leaves that make for good shade trees.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 6 to 10
    • Color Variation: Dark-green summer leaves; yellow, orange, purple and red fall colors
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Medium-moisture, well-drained soil; does not do well in alkaline soil
    Continue to 9 of 12 below.
  • 09 of 12

    Purple-Leaf Sand Cherry (Prunus × cistena)

    Purple-Leaf Sand Cherry

     

    D-Ozen / Getty Images

    The purple-leaf sand cherry is a large shrub often trained as a small tree. It is aptly named, since the reddish-purple foliage is consistent through the summer. But this specimen also has beautiful pinkish-white flowers in spring, leading to blackish-blue fruit that attracts birds in late summer. Fall color is an attractive greenish-bronze, making this a tree with excellent year-round interest. This a hybrid form of cherry that is somewhat short-lived; 10 to 15 years is the typical lifespan.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 2 to 8
    • Color Variation: Reddish purple summer foliage; greenish-bronze fall color
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Rich, moist, well-drained soil
  • 10 of 12

    Dogwood (Cornus spp.)

    Missouri dogwood foilage

    I love Photo and Apple/Getty Images 

    Dogwood trees such as flowering dogwood (C. florida) and Japanese dogwood (C. kousa) boast terrific spring interest on account of the flowers they bear. Red-twig dogwood (C. sericea) has bright red stems that provide winter interest. Many folks sell dogwood short when it comes to its fall color, but the fall color is quite attractive, ranging from orange to reddish-purple. Like black gum, dogwoods bear fruit that is eaten by wild birds. In size, dogwoods range from dwarf shrubs to small trees growing to about 25 feet tall, depending on species and cultivar.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 8, depending on species
    • Color Variation: Dark green summer foliage; orange to reddish-purple fall color
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Rich, moist soil; prefers slightly acidic soil
  • 11 of 12

    Sumac (Rhus Spp.)

    Sumac fall foliage

    David Beaulieu

    Homeowners concerned about poison sumac should have no fear—there are many types of sumac that have none of the urushiol toxin that causes skin rashes and other problems. The non-poisonous kinds can be considered potential landscape trees since they provide splendid autumn foliage and are easy to grow. Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) and staghorn sumac (R. typhina) are the most common landscape varieties, growing 10 to 15 feet tall.

    In addition to the spectacular fall color, sumac has been used for culinary purposes, for erosion control, and as a windbreak. And along with black gum and dogwood, you can add this plant to the list of trees that feed wild birds with their berries. Be somewhat careful with sumac, as it can spread aggressively unless supervised.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
    • Color Variation: Bright orange to red fall color; red, berry-like drupes
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Dry to medium moisture, well-drained soil
  • 12 of 12

    Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)

    Aspen fall foilage

    David Beaulieu

    The colorful fall foliage of quaking aspen is almost synonymous with autumn in the American West, but the proclivity of its leaves to tremble in the breeze is as famous as is their golden-yellow color. Being able to listen to and admire the sound is an added benefit to growing this plant. Quaking aspens also have an attractive, smooth whitish-colored bark that offers year-round interest. The trees grow to 20 to 50 feet at maturity.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 1 to 6
    • Color Variation: Golden-yellow fall foliage; brilliant white bark
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Moist, well-drained soil