There are a great number of reasons that we are blessed in where we live; we don’t suffer from hurricanes, we don’t have insects the size of cats, no volcanos or (powerful) earthquakes either. We are surrounded by thick forests, beautiful river valleys and charming villages that offer year-round appeal. One thing that sets us apart from other places is the splendor of our fall season. Other places may claim to have fall color but I have not found any place more brilliant than right here in our own back yards.
Do you know what brings about our distinct fall colors? There are several factors that make our area more brilliant than others. First, let’s look at the dynamics of leaf colors. From 4th grade science class (thank you Mrs. Starr) you probably remember that chlorophyll gives plant leaves their basic green color. Chlorophyll is necessary for photosynthesis which is the chemical reaction that allows plants to transform sunlight into food sugars. Deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in winter) store these accumulated sugars during their dormant winter season.
Carotenoids are organic pigments that produce yellow, orange and brown colors in plant tissue. They are present in plants throughout the growing season and offer color to things like carrots, bananas and tomatoes. These pigments are always present but often masked by the active chlorophyll making leaves appear green.
Anthocyanins are another form of pigment found in plant tissue. These are not always present but are produced during when excess plant sugars and bright light are made available to plant leaves.
During fall when days begin to shorten, the production of chlorophyll slows down and eventually stops revealing the remaining pigments that are then revealed to us all… and the show begins!
While there are deciduous trees in many locations, the trees native to our area offer a more brilliant display than in other parts of the country. We have a wide array of maples that offer a equal array of fall color from bright yellow to orange to scarlet. Oaks are later to color up and tend towards the deep red tones. Dogwoods, sassafras, poplars, nyssa, viburnum, birch, witch hazel and willow are all trees native to this area that provide extraordinary fall color.
When entering the fall season a common question I get asked is whether we should expect a strong display of fall color. Does weather affect the intensity of fall color? It certainly does! Warm, sunny days and cooler (but not freezing) nights are the ideal conditions to bring about the most stunning fall colors. During these conditions the leaves are able to produce sugars within the leaves by day while the cool nights cut off the supply of chlorophyll hiding the brilliant colors within.
Soil moisture can also be a contributing factor in our fall display. A late spring or severe summer drought can delay autumn colors while a warm fall will lower the intensity of color as pigments are allowed to release from leaves during warm nights.
Of course, native plants are only a portion of what brings us our fine autumn colors. Residential and commercial plantings also contribute greatly to our fall color show. There are far too many landscape plants that offer brilliant fall color to name them all but let me offer a few fall favorites for you to consider:
Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple) is an ideal landscape tree with red/orange fall colors.
Azalea viscosum (Swamp Azalea) is a deciduous azalea with fragrant flowers and a rich purple/red/orange fall display.
Cercidiphyllum (Katsura Tree) comes in several forms, upright and weeping. The yellow/orange fall color is beautiful but what make this tree stand apart is the presence of a fresh strawberry fragrance during the fall color display.
Cornus drummondii (Grey dogwood) is unique in that during the display of purple fall color white fruit is also present offering a distinct contrast in colors.
Cotinus obovatus (American Smoke Tree) is a small tree with spectacular yellow/red/purple fall color.
Enkianthus campanlatus is a member of the rhododendron family gowing 6-8’ tall and having a brilliant scarlet red fall color.
Ginko trees may have the most brilliant yellow fall color of all!
Itea is a very hardy native shrub that doesn’t get the credit it deserves for its deep red fall color that lasts longer than most any other plant often well into November or December.
Liquidambar (Sweetgum) trees offer the most diverse coloration with all fall colors often present on the same leaf/tree at the same time.
Parrotia persica is a little used tree with the most brilliant fall display of reds/orange and scarlet.
Rhus (Sumac) are a family of shrubs that vary widely in size and shape but all share tremendous fall colors. ‘Tiger Eyes’ is golden all summer with dramatic orange/red in fall.
Stewardia pseudocamellia have brilliant scarlet leaves in fall that really stand out in the landscape.
Of course these are just a few of the many plants that can add color, beauty and interest to your fall landscape. If your yard doesn’t pop with fall color you should plan for more interest in your fall displays by adding some of the many fall beauties available and then sit back and enjoy the (fall) show!
Now go outside and have fun in the dirt!•