Shrubs for Fall Color

Japanese MapleHow many gardeners choose their shrubs because they have great fall color? Not too many. Fragrance, flowers, colorful berries, and attractive shapes are the features most gardeners request. And yet the gradual, long-lasting autumn leaf change is one of the most beautiful displays in the plant world. It lasts longer than any spring flower show; it’s different each year; and it occurs in fall, a quiet time when riotous color is least expected.

While most of us are familiar with showy sugar maples and majestic red oaks, there are many smaller trees and shrubs that can provide dazzling color displays in more intimate garden settings. Part of the pleasure in leaf peeping at this time of year is seeing how plants play off each other; how color combinations shift from year to year; how much beauty is to be found in the subtle combinations as well as the more brilliant shows.

The following lesser-known woody plants are guaranteed to please — not just in fall but throughout the year with their flowers, fruit and, attractive habits:

  • Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa var. elata) is a 3- to 5-foot native shrub that provides a double feature in fall of purple-black berries set against wine red foliage. In spring the plant blooms with clusters of small white flowers. It’s a good choice for naturalistic gardens and for those interested in attracting birds.
  • Bloodgood Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’) is the hardiest of the Japanese maples and the one that performs best in Chicago gardens. Its distinctive palmate leaves are red-purple in summer but change to brilliant crimson in fall. It’s a beautiful small tree to showcase against an evergreen backdrop.
  • Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) is a low, 3- to 5-foot mounding plant that makes a novel ground cover. The foliage is fragrant when crushed and the red fruit remains on the plant throughout autumn. The leaves turn purplish red in fall and create quite an effect when plants are massed together.
  • Judd viburnum (Viburnum x juddii) is usually chosen for its intensely fragrant spring flowers, pleasing round shape and attractive leathery leaves. But what a surprise to discover its beautiful burgundy late fall color — shown to best advantage when the shrub is massed and underplanted with bright green pachysandra.
  • Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa var. chinensis) requires a well-drained, protected spot but puts on quite the show beginning in late spring when it blooms with classic creamy white dogwood flowers and continues through fall when its raspberrylike fruits turn bright red. The shapely leaves change from green to burgundy with purple and red overtones.
  • Northern lights azalea (Rhododendron Northern Lights hybrids) offers brightly colored (orchid, orange, white, yellow, or rose), fragrant flowers in early spring, a nice compact shape, reliable winter hardiness and — what a surprise — outstanding fall color where the leaves turn a soft bronze orange that glows in the setting sun.
  • Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) is a small (under 10-foot) ornamental maple with very unmaplelike foliage that changes in fall to a soft orange. The upper leaves turn first, giving the appearance of a soft green tree wearing a burnished crown. This maple gets its name from its peeling, curling cinnamon bark.
  • Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) is a close relative of the glossy black chokeberry. It is a good choice for naturalistic sites and can tolerate moist conditions. The bright red fall color is matched by the plant’s bright red berries, guaranteed to attract migrating birds. In spring, it blooms with small white flowers. A preferred choice at the Chicago Botanic Garden is 'Brilliantissima'.

As the light angles a little lower in the blue October sky, take note of the magical color show going on all around us.