Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
October, 2007
Regional Report

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'Bradford' ornamental pears are among several great choices for fall foliage color, even in the balmy lower South.

Fall Color for Southern Landscapes

Ahhhh, don't you just love fall! Finally we get a break from the summer heat, and a new gardening season is well under way. The trees take on all their beautiful fall colors as leaf peepers arrive from ... okay, we are the leaf peepers that head north to where there is real fall color.

But just because the lower South is not naturally blessed with an abundance of fall color is no reason not to create some fall color in our landscapes. There are a number of plants that provide decent fall color for us. The lower South spans quite a range of soils and growing conditions so generalizations about plants are difficult. But here are a few fall color plants to consider.

Fall Bloomers
We have many plants that wait until late summer and fall to put on their bloom show. Examples include fall aster, Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida), Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), mountain sage (Salvia regla), and Copper Canyon daisy (Tagetes lemmonii). Of course there's also the chrysanthemums. One of my favorite is 'Country Girl', a single-flowered variety that sprawls about in an unladylike matter. Nevertheless 'Country Girl' is well suited to a cottage garden or perennial border.

Chinese flame tree (Koelreuteria bipinnata) produces attractive yellow blooms followed by coppery pink pods that lasts until the first freeze.

Colorful foliage
When it comes to southern fall color, sweetgums are hard to beat. Depending on the weather they can provide a range of colors from yellow to burgundy to purple. They are best adapted to areas with slightly acidic soils. Red oaks can also provide us with nice fall color if the weather cooperates. In years with crisp, cool nights, red oaks turned shades of orange and burgundy.

I've noticed significant difference between plants growing in the same soil. Trees that had light green foliage during the year generally produce more orange fall color, while trees with dark green foliage tend toward burgundy.

Other trees that produce fairly dependable fall color include Chinese pistache (reddish orange), ornamental pears such as Bradford (burgundy-red), Drummond maple or chalk maple for high pH soils (orange-red), dogwood (red), persimmon (yellow to orange), American elm or cedar elm for western areas (yellow), black gum (reddish purple), and sassafras (orange to red).

Crape myrtles may well be one of the best all-around small trees for the South. Not only do they bloom all summer and have attractive winter bark features, many varieties also have excellent fall color, sporting leaves in shades of yellow and orange-red.

Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), a favorite in areas with acidic soil, offers attractive red to burgundy fall foliage. Oakleaf hydrangea can provide rich purplish hues when cool weather arrives. In some areas sumac can put on quite a fall show as the green foliage changes to yellow, orange, and burgundy-red.

Now, if you promise not to plant one I'll tell you that few plants provide colorful foliage like Chinese tallow (Sapium sebiferum). Even down to the Gulf Coast it turns bright shades of yellow, red, burgundy, and purple. However it is a short-lived tree that is EXTREMELY "weedy," coming up everywhere in flower beds and pastures across the countryside. As a result I don't recommend them for our southern landscapes.

Colorful Berries
Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) produces beautiful lavender berries in early fall. If you live far enough south to grow golden dewdrop (Duranta erecta), you can enjoy its bright yellow berries through the fall season. As the fall and winter season progresses, berries of many holly species and pyracantha turn bright red.

Fall is the best planting season of all. So take advantage of the cooling weather to establish some new plants around the landscape to light up future seasons with fall color, southern style! No doubt there are several plants that I did not mention that are favorites on your "local list."

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