University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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FALL COLOR IN NORTHERN LANDSCAPES

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
   
Whether or not you live in an area of colorful sugar maples, there are many landscape plants that can provide wonderful fall colors around your home and yard.
  
If choosing shrubs or small trees, try a grouping of several.  If using large trees, one may be all that is needed or that you have room for.  Keep in mind the mature size of woody plants when buying them in nurseries, and space appropriately when planting.  Improper spacing (usually too close) and you'll be pruning in a few years, plants will grow together so won't realize their final shape and potential, and if near a building or walk may overtake these.  An exception to planting close is if you want to establish a hedge.
   
If planting a group of low shrubs or trees, keep in mind that they may look good against a dark-colored wall or evergreen hedge.  Make sure that you plant in soil suited for the species.  Try not to plant where snow and ice, or winter road salt, may damage plants.  All of the following are hardy to at least USDA zone 4 (-20 to -30 degrees F average minimum) in winter.
   
For vines, such as those climbing on fences, consider American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) for yellow fall leaves.  This one can be vigorous and choke out other plants.  Another vigorous vine, this one with red fall leaves, is Virginia creeper.  As with many fall leaves, this one shows brighter colors in sun.  Boston ivy turns dark red in fall with full sun, yellowish-red in shade.  While bittersweet climbs by twining, and Virginia creeper by tendrils, Boston ivy has tendril discs that make an adhesive that holds to walls but which can rot wooden structures.
   
A couple of groundcovers, both with reddish leaves, are the bearberry (Arctostaphylos) and lowbush blueberry. For small shrubs under four feet high, consider some Spirea cultivars (cultivated varieties) generally with yellow fall leaves except for reddish Japanese sprireas .  As with many plants, it may be best to buy them in fall so that you can see for yourself what actual colors they produce. Yellowroot (Xanthorrhiza) has brilliant red and gold fall color.
   
There are several larger shrubs, generally with reddish fall color.  An exception is summersweet (Clethra) with generally yellow leaves.  For purplish red leaves in fall, consider the chokeberry (Aronia) with the cultivar 'Brilliantissima' turning scarlet.  Also purplish-red in fall are red-osier dogwood and some viburnums such as the native nannyberry, blackhaw, and American cranberrybush.  Korean spice viburnum turns burgundy.  Vanhoutte spirea, and in particular the cultivar 'Renaissance', turns an orange-red. 
   
Many of these shrubs have multi-season interest.  In particular, deciduous (losing their leaves in winter) rhododendrons such as the Northern lights series from Minnesota have red fall colors in addition to their colorful early season flowers.  Redosier dogwood has reddish-purple fall leaves followed by bright red twigs in winter.
   
There are many trees to consider for fall color, other than maples.  For small trees under about 25 to 35 feet tall, red fall leaves are seen on shadbush, hawthorns, and the native shining sumac.  Other sumacs, as well as mountainash, turn various colors of red, orange, and yellow.  The native American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) turns red in sun and yellow in shade. 
   
Many of the colorful large trees turn variations of yellow including yellowwood, American beech (a yellowish bronze), ash (a reddish yellow), ginkgo, honeylocust, larch (looks like a conifer but loses its leaves in winter), quaking aspen, golden weeping willow, and elms.  For dark red colors in large trees consider some of the oaks such as the white, swamp white, scarlet, shingle, pin, and red oak.  Some of the other oaks' leaves aren't particularly showy in fall.  One of the few hardy flowering cherries for the north, the Sargent cherry, turns yellow to red.
    
If you happen to live in a slightly warmer area, such as USDA zone 5 (-10 to -20 degrees F in winter), your palette to choose from for fall color in woody plants will be increased.  More choices, and information on particular plants, can be found in references such as Landscape Plants for Vermont (www.uvm.edu/mastergardener), and The Homeowner's Complete Tree and Shrub Handbook (www.storey.com).   


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