Best landscape trees (and shrubs) for fall color

By Lynette Walther | Oct 16, 2019
Photo by: Lynette Walthers For fall color beyond foliage, you can count on mountain ash for a brilliant display of fruits that are enjoyed by wildlife too.

Fall — time for the invasion of the “purple-haired leaf peepers,” is what our friend the Major used to call the seasonal arrival of tour buses filled with folks here to see the colorful fall foliage. Our autumnal display attracts visitors from near and far to witness the annual turning of the leaves. Fact is, the colorful change is unique not only to our region but our nation as well. Our native trees are unsurpassed anywhere else when it comes to fall color.

Fall color varies from year to year, and some trees, like ashes, will bear testimony to especially dry or wet summers in their fall leaf color. It is plant genetics that determine fall color timing and color intensity. Shorter daylight plays a major role, along with temperature changes of the season in determining peak color seasons. Leaf colors, yellow and orange carotenoid colors emerge as the green chlorophyll fades and no longer masks them. Red leaf hues are caused by anthocyanins that develop when sunlight is bright and phosphate moves from leaves into roots. The anthocyanin can increase with days of bright sunshine, and the result is more brilliant foliage color.

Planning your own landscape to include a brilliant fall display is as easy as selecting a few good natives to round out the show. When it comes to fall color, you can’t beat our native species, which not only provide plenty of autumn hues, but also support native wildlife from bugs to birds to larger animals with habitat and food sources.

Here’s a list from which to choose, native trees suitable for this zone to color up your landscape-- and life, too -- including choices for full sun to light shade:

Mountain maple (Acer spicatum) is without a doubt one of my favorite native trees. This understory tree tolerates shade and grows to about 30 feet, often forming clumps of numerous trunks. This little beauty performs from spring when it send out spikes of clusters of small yellow-green flowers that looks like glowing candles, then in the fall its true colors shine with foliage turning a brilliant orange-red.

Moose maple (Acer pensylvanicum) is another of my favorite maples. Another understory tree, the moose or striped maple is named for the green vertical stripes on its smooth, shiny bark. Handsome, six-inch long large leaves adorn the tree which rarely exceeds a height of 25 feet. Fall color is a luminous light yellow.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is without a doubt one of our most valuable of trees, and is the source of maple syrup. This handsome tree can attain heights of 60 to 70 feet and fall foliage can range from red, scarlet, orange or yellow.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier) which includes seven species which are native to Maine. Also called shad bush, these handsome small trees (30-40 feet tall) thrive in margins of open areas. Springtime blooms are early with sweet-smelling white flowers that later develop into berry-like edible fruits that mature to red or purple and are great for wildlife. Fall foliage is orange-red.

Red oak (Quercus rubra) is one of our most common trees, growing to an impressive 60-80 feet tall. Acorns provide food for wildlife from chipmunks to squirrels to deer. One of the last trees to color-up in the fall, foliage can range from crimson to orange to russet.

Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) also known as poppel or “biscuit wood,” grows to 60 to 75 feet and is intolerant of shade. This quick-growing tree has heart-shaped leaves that quiver in breezes and in fall turn gold to orange.

Mountain ash (Sorbus) stands out in any landscape. This small tree, rarely getting over 20 feet tall, tends to be short-lived. But during its short life this tree (reputed to bring good luck and safety to any homestead) performs throughout the growing season. In the spring clusters of small, creamy-white flowers develop into stunning berry-like “fruits” that cover the trees and provide food for birds as they remain on the tree late into the winter months.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus hirta) is not a tree exactly, but this little-appreciated native offers one of the most spectacular fall foliage of brilliant red. In summer spikes of deep-red rise up over the frond-like foliage. A tasty sumac beverage can be made from the fruit spikes.

Red Osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), a shrub that can grow to 10 feet, is well suited to wet or boggy areas. In the spring it produces clusters of small white flowers, but it is the brilliant red bark of this native that makes it a standout in landscapes.

Hawthorne (Crataegus) also called thorn apple, is a low spreading tree rarely growing over 15 to 18 feet tall. Showy clusters of white blooms appear in June and are followed by clusters of small fruits attractive to birds, but which can be used for jelly making. Fall foliage is often brilliant yellow to orange.

Blueberry (Cyanococcus), whether the choice is the low or high bush variety, blueberries are one of the best shrubs to grow. Lowbush blueberries can provide groundcover for sunny, difficult to mow slopes. Highbush varieties are excellent shrubs that can be pruned to shape. Not only do they provide delicious and nutritious berries, the fall foliage of blueberries is unsurpassed.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a handsome native deciduous holly that is good for wet or boggy areas. The creamy white flowers appear in early summer, followed by bright red berries in the fall that persist into winter. It also offers food for wildlife.

All of the trees listed here are native to the state, and all provide habitat for birds and the insects birds feed upon, while delivering color and interest in the fall and at other times. We get plenty of all-season beauty from these natives. If you have any of the invasive exotic species such as burning bush (Euonymus) or barberry (Berberis), this is a great time to remove them from your landscape, and replace them with beneficial native trees and shrubs.

Lynette L. Walther is the 2019 GardenComm Gold Award winner for writing, and is a four-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Award of Achievement and the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. Her gardens are in Camden.

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