Trees, shrubs, and a perennial that rocked fall color in my garden this year.

By Steve Bender
December 03, 2020
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Blueberry Plant in Fall
Credit: Steve Bender

Well, I told you fall color was going to be great. Yet even though I am correct 172% of the time, I’m sure there were doubters. Like the Apostle Thomas, they don’t believe until they see. Shame! Shame on them! Let me present a few of this season’s highlights.

Blueberry Plant in Fall
Credit: Steve Bender

Exhibit 1. Blueberry.

Imagine a native fruit that not only delivers delicious berries in June and July, but also dresses itself in the most stunning scarlet and crimson fall foliage imaginable. This is a selection of rabbiteye blueberry (Vaccinium ashei), the best species for my USDA Zone 8A garden. It turns late in the season and holds the color for weeks. Give it full to part sun and acid, well-drained soil.

Fothergilla Shrub in Fall
Credit: Steve Bender

Exhibit 2. ‘Mt. Airy’ Fothergilla.

This little-known native shrub was my star of stars. After a spring show featuring fragrant, white flowers resembling shaving brushes, it doubled down with leaves that changed from blue-green to yellow, orange, and scarlet over three weeks in fall. The more sun it gets, the brighter the fall colors. It grows 4 to 5 feet tall and wide and likes moist, acid, well-drained soil in USDA Zone 5 to 8.

Flowering Dogwood Tree in Fall
Credit: Steve Bender

Exhibit 3. Flowering Dogwood.

The abundant summer rains really aided this flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) growing in my woods. It has been in color for over a month. I didn’t plant it, but its appearance tells me what it likes – full to part sun and acid, moist, well-drained soil containing lots of organic matter, such as decomposing leaves. This tree grows 15 to 30 feet tall in USDA Zones 5 to 9, but if you plant one, know the source. Northern grown trees don’t do well in the South and vice-versa.

Oakleaf hydrangea in fall
Credit: Steve Bender

Exhibit 4. Oakleaf hydrangea.

Another southeastern native, oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) has the finest fall foliage of any hydrangea. Leaves turn scarlet, orange, burgundy, and purple and hold on until nearly winter. They’re preceded by showy, white flowers in early summer that often age to pink. Plant in full sun to light shade in acid, well-drained soil in USDA Zones 5 to 9.

Sweet shrub in fall
Credit: Steve Bender

Exhibit 5. Sweet Shrub.

Most people grow this native shrub (Calycanthus floridus) for its fragrant, brownish-red flowers in spring. Clear yellow leaves in fall are a nice bonus. It forms a suckering bush 6 to 8 feet tall and wide in my woods. It likes full sun to light shade and accepts most soils. Grow it in USDA Zones 5 to 9.

Chalk maple in fall
Credit: Steve Bender

Exhibit 6. Chalk maple.

When I named this native tree (Acer leucoderme) “Plant of the Month” in Southern Living last fall, I wasn’t kidding around. Growing to about half the size of a sugar maple (25 to 30 feet tall) with leaves half as big, it sports some of finest fall colors you’ll see – vivid orange, scarlet, and gold. I’ve been growing this one for two years and it’s super easy. It colors well in full sun or light shade, tolerates drought, and likes well-drained soil. Grow it in USDA Zones 5 to 8.

Hosta 'June' in Fall
Credit: Steve Bender

Exhibit 7. Hosta ‘June.’

Widely considered the best perennials for shade, hostas offer a dizzying array of leaf sizes, shapes, textures, and patterns with colors of blue, green, yellow, gold, and white. Summer is their peak season, but don’t overlook the fall. Many celebrate with leaves that turn bright yellow and gold, like this favorite called ‘June.’ Some hostas tolerate sun, but most prefer light shade and moist, well-drained soil containing lots of organic matter. Depending on the species and selection, they grow in USDA Zones 3 to 9.