Get Ready for Great Fall Color
I shouldn't do it. I could be wrong. Well, as wrong as anyone could be who never has been before. But all the signs tell me we're going to have a glorious autumn this year.
First, much of the South received plenty of rain this summer. Second, it was cooler than normal. (Heck, it was warmer in San Francisco!) Third, we're now experiencing a beautiful, early autumn with sunny skies and cool, crisp nights. The stars have aligned.
As fortune would have it, dazzling fall color coincides with an excellent time to be planting trees. Thus, why not choose a tree that's both easy to grow and renowned for fall foliage? Here are six such trees available now at home and garden centers.
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
Usually among the first trees to color in fall, flowering dogwood progresses from reddish-purple to bright red over several weeks. It's also famed for showy white, pink, and even red spring flowers. This Southern native grows 15 to 25 feet tall and wide and prefers moist, acid, well-drained soil that isn't hard clay. Give it plenty of sun for lots of blooms and best fall color, but if you do, remember to water during hot, dry summers, as it doesn't like drought. Northern grown trees (USDA Zones 5 to 6) grow better there than Southern grown trees (USDA Zones 7 to 9) and vice-versa. 'Appalachian Spring,' a splendid disease-resistant, white-flowering selection works for just about everybody.
'Autumn Brilliance' Serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Autumn Brilliance')
Like flowering dogwood, this small American native pairs white flowers in spring with brilliant red foliage in fall. And there's an unexpected bonus – edible, purple fruits that ripen in summer and taste like blueberries. 'Autumn Brilliance' reaches 15 to 20 feet tall and wide, often sporting multiple trunks. Easier to grow than flowering dogwood, it likes full to part sun and moist, well-drained soil. Grow it in USDA Zones 4 to 9.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)
A ginkgo tree in full fall color amazing. Fan-shaped leaves gleam such an intense gold, they seem lit from within. This prehistoric tree from China (dating back some 270 million years) was first planted in the U.S. near Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1800's. Easy, tough, and adaptable, it grows in almost any well-drained soil, accepts drought and urban pollution, and suffers no serious pests. If you plant one, though, be sure to plant a male selection, such as 'Autumn Gold' and 'Saratoga.' Female trees bear malodorous fruit that will make you gag. Also, plant only one tree because, even though it grows fairly slowly at first, it eventually reaches 60 feet tall and 30 feet wide. Grow it in USDA Zones 3 to 9.
Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
This is a tree you see all of those travelogues luring you to visit New England in the fall. Although it's much more common up there, it grows perfectly well as far south as USDA Zone 8. Gorgeous in every season, it reaches its zenith in October and November, as its foliage glows pumpkin orange and deep gold. It likes full to part sun and moist, well-drained soil. You'll often see country lanes lined on both sides with massive, rounded sugar maples, but keep in mind the "massive" aspect when planning a suburban garden. It can reach 60 feet tall and 40 feet wide, so plant only one that's nowhere near the house. Don't plan on growing grass beneath it. Its shade is too dense.
Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)
If you have a yard, you have a place for a Japanese maple. Thanks to its incredible genetic diversity, this species offers myriad sizes, shapes, and leaf colors. Trees may be upright, mounding, or weeping, ranging in size from 3 to 30 feet tall. Growth is generally slow, so you won't be pruning much, and most kinds don't take up a lot of space. Dwarf and weeping selections are great for containers. Summer leaf colors of red, yellow, or green transform to incandescent shades of scarlet, orange, gold, pink, crimson, and purple in fall. Give them full to part sun (afternoon shade in the Deep South) and moist, well-drained soil. Grow them in USDA Zones 5 to 9.
Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis)
There's a lot to like about Chinese pistache. A cousin to the pistachio, it grows fast, has no serious pests, tolerates heat and drought, and adapts to almost any well-drained soil. It tops out at about 30 to 35 feet tall and wide, so it's a good choice for most yards. Plus, grass grows well beneath it. Its compound, foot-long leaves consist of 12 to 14 leaflets that turn vivid scarlet, orange, and yellow in fall. Plant in full sun for best color. Grow it in USDA Zones 6 to 9.