Cooler days have us all gazing skyward for fall color. Truth is, we should look a little lower. Plenty of shrubs offer fantastic foliage that rivals even the best maple. While trees are impressive from a distance, shrubs with autumnal offerings provide a nice touch for small gardens or areas viewed at close range. We love these three because they always yield great color and are simple to grow.
You know the shy boy who sat at the back of the class? No one gave him much thought until one day when he took the class by storm with a joke. If that boy were a shrub, his name would be burning bush. Also known as winged euonymus (Euonymus alatus), this back-of-the-border plant screams for attention come fall. With brilliant red leaves, which you can't help but notice, burning bush offers dependable color in the Upper, Middle, and Lower South. Great as a screen and nice as a hedge, burning bush will keep a low profile most of the year. Then, watch out. This plant is so fluorescent, you may decide that one is all it takes--especially if it stands in front of an evergreen backdrop.
It's a fairly large shrub, and there are several selections to choose from. Reaching 15 to 20 feet tall and wide, the species, E. alatus, which has the best cold tolerance, can be limbed up and used as a small tree in the home landscape. 'Compactus,' the selection most often sold in nurseries, grows between 6 and 10 feet tall and wide. For something a little smaller, opt for 'Rudy Haag,' which maxes out at around 5 feet tall and wide.
Burning bush readily grows in sun or shade, though fall color is best when it's sited in full sun. This shrub tolerates a variety of soils as long as they are well drained. You can thank the birds if you notice seedlings popping up around the yard; to control this, simply pull them up by hand while they are still young.
If leaves of gold that shimmer and dance in the afternoon sun speak to your heart, plant a pomegranate. Not only is its fall foliage yellow, but its emerging spring growth is a pretty bronze. Ornamental pomegranates (Punica granatum) reward their owners with showy, sunset-hued summer flowers and the luxury of little care.
Just don't expect large, edible fruit from this plant. That is the job of its cousin. If you want fruit to eat and you live in the Middle, Lower, or Coastal South, try a pomegranate selection called 'Wonderful.'
Ornamental pomegranates come in a range of heights. 'Chico,' a dwarf carnation-flowered selection, can be kept around 1 1?2 feet tall with occasional pruning, while 8-foot-tall 'Nochi Shibari' looks ideal on the corner of a house. To keep the plant in good shape, prune out the oldest branches in late winter.
Pomegranates are not picky about soil and even thrive in alkaline conditions. Doing well in all but the Upper South, they need full sun and regular watering. In the Middle South, plant your pomegranate in a protected area, such as a south- or west-facing wall. This plant may be hard to find but is well worth the search. Look for ornamental pomegranates at your local nursery, or order them from Woodlanders, (803) 648-7522 or www.woodlanders.net.
"Fall is the refreshing reminder of what Mother Nature does for us," says Bob Brackman, director of Cheekwood Botanical Garden in Nashville. One of Bob's favorite shrubs this time of year is a Southeastern United States native, oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). The plant is named for its oak-shaped leaves, which may sport shades of crimson, scarlet, and purple at the same time. If you are fond of red, the hues of 'Alice' and 'Snow Queen' are particularly rich.
Growing in all but the Tropical South, oakleaf hydrangeas work best in drifts where they receive morning sun and light afternoon shade. Space plants about 8 feet apart, and expect them to reach 6 feet tall and 8 feet wide. If you must prune, do it soon after the plant flowers. The elongated clusters of creamy white flowers are lovely, but the bold-textured, jewel toned leaves are equally satisfying reasons to welcome this plant into your garden.
More Shrubs for Fall Color
Don't cheat yourself by planting only evergreens. If you are afraid your garden will look too bare come winter, do this: Sandwich deciduous shrubs (those that offer fall color and then lose their leaves) between taller and shorter plants that keep their leaves year-round. Here are 12 to try.
- beautyberry (Callicarpa sp.)--reddish-purple, pink, or orange
- border forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia)--yellow, purplish, or burgundy
- bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)--yellow
- common sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus)--yellow
- fothergilla (Fothergilla sp.)--yellow, orange, and scarlet; often combined
- 'Henry's Garnet' Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet')--purplish-red
- rabbiteye blueberry (Vaccinium ashei)--red, orange, or yellow
- smooth sumac (Rhus glabra)--scarlet
- spiraea (Spiraea x vanhouttei)--purple
- summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)--yellow to brownish
- viburnum (Viburnum sp.)--orange, red, yellow, bronze, or purplish
- witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia)--yellow, orange, and red
"This Bush Blazes With Color in Autumn" is from the November 2005 issue of Southern Living.