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September 15, 2012

Autumn hues can shine with correct tree, shrub choices

By Emily Popek
The Daily Star

---- — Vibrant purple. Brilliant ruby red. Blazing orange. Stunning yellow. 

While some “leaf-peepers” may travel for many miles to seek out the best fall color, we’re lucky in the local area that we don’t have to look very far to view the gem-like hues of autumn. But if you want to bring some of that vivid beauty even closer to home, here are some tips for planting trees and shrubs to make your yard come alive in the fall.


Several shrubs offer glowing yellow foliage in fall. The gardening website Dave’s Garden offers a handy list of them here: Here are a few highlights that will grow well in this region:


Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is native to the East Coast and tolerates a variety of conditions, including cold temperatures. The Sunset Northeast Gardening Book describes its appearance as “open, spreading, rather straggling,” which makes this shrub or small tree best suited for a naturalized landscape setting. You can look forward to clear, bright yellow fall color accompanied by small clusters of unusual flowers that resemble small mop heads.

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), another Northeast native, is a well-behaved deciduous shrub that’s at home in yards and more formal plantings. As the name suggests, the plant bears sweetly scented blossoms in summer that attract butterflies; in fall, its small oval leaves turn bright yellow. This plant may not knock your socks off, but it won’t give you a lot of trouble, either.

Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) has striking, large, spreading oval leaves in palm-like clusters that turn a buttery yellow in fall. This is an uncommon landscape plant in the local area that deserves consideration. It’s a lovely plant that can be grown as a shrub or small tree; it also produces towering, showy blossoms during the summertime. 


When you think of yellow fall foliage, birches almost always come to mind. But there are plenty of other options when it comes to trees, from small street or yard trees to towering specimens.

Ginkgo biloba may boast the most clear and striking yellow-green fall foliage of any tree that can be grown in the region. The distinctive fan-like shape of the small leaves, and its graceful habit, make this large tree a favorite in parks and similar landscapes. Sunset warns that female trees produce “messy, fleshy, ill-smelling fruit in quantity,” but these trees otherwise come highly recommended, tolerating a variety of poor growing conditions.

Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioca) isn’t exactly a household name, but this slow-growing, unusual tree offers year-round interest, according to Sunset. Scaly bark, contorted branches and changing leaf colors during the growing season make this tree an eye-catcher, and its yellow fall foliage is the finishing act.

River birch (Betula nigra)

is a disease- and pest-resistant variety that offers the enduring image of golden leaves against pale bark without the problems that plague the traditional white birch. These fast-growing trees still require plenty of sun and moisture to prosper, however.

Yellow wood (Cladastris lutea) is described by the Morton Arboretum as “intermediate-sized spreading tree with smooth gray bark and blue-green foliage, which turns clear-yellow in autumn.” Sunset says it’s useful as a lawn tree, but that branches may be susceptible to breakage during ice storms.


Sugar maples are the classic source for bright orange and red fall color, but they aren’t the only option. Here are some off-the-beaten-path alternatives to set your landscaping apart from the crowd.


“Tiger eyes” sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Tigerye bailtiger’) is a specific cultivar of staghorn sumac prized for its vividly colored leaves. According to Fine Gardening, the plant’s new growth comes in chartreuse, with a fall display that ranges from yellow to a brilliant red-orange. Sumac is a common plant in the region; like most varieties, “Tiger eyes” can spread by suckering, but the plant is not officially classified as invasive in New York state.

Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) is often cited as a good alternative to burning bush, a common shrub that’s become an invasive pest in much of the Northest. The New York Times described the plant in a 2007 article as “less lurid than burning bush, but equally reliable as an autumn color machine,” adding that “the luscious reds and purples usually stay on the plant until the weather turns bitter.” The small shrub also features fragrant white flowers that give it its name.

Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is more cold-tolerant than the slightly more common red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), and its fall foliage tends more toward purple. This compact and petite shrub bears glossy black fruit on upright stems; Sunset calls them a “tough, undemanding” plant “useful as fillers or background plantings.”


Black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), also known as sour gum, black gum or pepperidge, is a slow-growing medium-size tree that Sunset calls “among the best native trees for consistent, blazing fall color.” Its foliage ranges from yellow to orange before settling on a vibrant red in autumn. Female trees bear small olive-like fruit that can attract birds.

Stellar dogwood (Cornus rutgersensis) is a hybrid cultivar of the tree that Sunset calls “the most beautiful native tree of North America.” These medium-size trees offer the showy flowers and brilliant red fall foliage of the Eastern dogwood without the disease and pest problems that plague the native variety. 

Japanese stewartia (Stewartia psueducamellia) is described by Better Homes & Gardens as a “top-notch tree” with all-season interest that produces a fall show of light reddish-orange foliage that darkens to purple or bronze.


Darker fall foliage may not catch the eye as readily as its brighter counterparts, but purple hues can offer contrast to the fall landscape.


Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) is easy to grow, and if you provide multiple plants for pollination, will bear fruit readily (although you will have to fight the birds and other critters for them). These compact shrubs feature a pleasant reddish-purple fall foliage that makes a lovely spot of color amid a naturalized landscape.


Tricolor beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Tricolor’) is a stunning, pricy and delicate plant that will reward the patient and careful gardener with an unparalleled show of color. In summer, the leaves are green, white and pink, turning purple and rose in the fall.