It is a spectacular year for leaf-peeping, despite earlier predictions that fall color would be poor this season. Trips to Letchworth State Park, Ellicottville or northern Niagara County reveal postcard-worthy vistas. My own walk in the woods this week was a dreamlike passage through a golden world, with ash, sugar maple and Norway maple leaves blanketing the path and raining from above.
During this season, people regularly ask for help identifying the trees with the gold/red/orange leaves that they saw on their drives.
I can satisfy them only with my best guesses: Our woods and roadsides are filled with non-native Norway maples, which can be spectacularly bright yellow in fall. Native sugar maples turn bright red, yellow or orange. Green ash turns yellow, while white ash appears mostly soft red with some yellow leaves on inner branches.
Our oaks tend toward red fall colors, with some yellows as well. You may also be seeing sweeps of willows with yellow leaves, or sometimes a gold tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) or sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) with orange to purplish-red leaves.
Understory plants also provide broad swaths of strong colors. At least three species of native sumacs develop showy, flame-colored leaves as well as red fruits (drupes). Some viburnums develop bright red leaves, but most tend toward dark red or wine-colored shades. Very prominent in our fields, native shrubby dogwoods (silky, gray and Redosier) appear in large patches of fall colors, with mostly reddish purple leaves and sometimes with brightly colored stems.
So which trees and shrubs are you seeing when you drive in the country? Surely some are those I have mentioned, but remember that most of the fields you see are far from natural habitats with native plants.
Our fields and woods are “disturbed” land – formerly used for agriculture or other human activity – and they are filled with adventitious plants, including many that we call weeds or invasive species.
For example, if you see large blocks of solid green (large shrubs or small trees) late in the season when everything else has turned colors, it is probably the non-native, nasty, invasive buckthorn – a plant that we would best do without.
We have a bit more control in our yards, where we choose the plants, but I don’t see a lot of fall color in Western New York landscapes. Most people don’t weigh the fall color factor into their spring planting projects. For next year, go to a garden center now, or peruse the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens or other arboreta, to see what your yard could be sporting. (There’s still time to plant trees and shrubs successfully.)
These are some shrubs and small yard trees with colorful fall foliage as well as desirable features in other seasons. (Always consider the suitability for your site.) All are hardy to USDA Zone 5 and tolerate partial shade but do best in at least part sun (four to six hours) unless indicated:
• Acer griseum (Paperbark maple) and most Japanese maples offer superior fall color, plus ornamental bark and attractive structure. Choose carefully for mature size.
• Amelanchier (Serviceberry): Both natives and cultivars suddenly turned yellow, orange or red within the last two weeks; best four-season short tree or large shrub.
• Aronia (Chokeberry): Native plant with purple-black berries and red autumn leaves – picture ‘Brilliantissima’; prefers acidic soil. Cultivars are 3½ to 6 feet.
• Enkianthus campanulatus (Redvein Enkianthus): Elegant, to 5 feet tall, with bell-shaped flowers. Requires acidic soil; red to pinkish-beige leaves in fall and red stems.
• Heptacodium miconioides (Seven-son flower/seven sons tree): See it now with the red calyxes, while some of the white flowers linger on; adorable small tree with shaggy bark.
• Hydrangeas: Huge, most popular genus, chosen for the flowers – but don’t underestimate the fall colors of some species and cultivars. H. quercifolia (Oakleaf hydrangea) is a favorite of most serious plant collectors, especially for the gigantic, wine-colored leaves. Some H. macrophylla have textured, multicolored foliage from September on – most notably, ‘Double Expressions,’ among others. Most prefer morning sun, with some afternoon sun protection.
• Itea virginica (Virginia sweetspire): Native plant with fragrant, white, drooping flowers; purple or crimson leaves in fall – long-lasting, too. Easy, 3-to 5-foot cultivars.
• Lindera benzoin (Spicebush): Important native butterfly plant; very yellow in autumn.
• Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-low’ (Sumac): Stays 2½ feet tall and spreads wide (unless you cut it back); bright red fall colors. R. typhina ‘Dissecta’ and ‘Laciniata’ are hard-to-find sumac cultivars, but they are great choices.
• Viburnums: Huge genus with superior plants for any landscape; nearly all have great flowers, showy berries and fall color, usually from dark red to wine colors.
There are also medium to large yard trees – Katsuratree, Stewartia, Callery pears, Gingko biloba, Hawthorns or the deciduous conifers Metasequoia and larch – that have elegant silhouettes, attractive bark, flowers or fruit in addition to remarkable leaf colors.
Look around, identify, and put some on your must-have list. Fall color is an important part of landscape design.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.