Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
November, 2000
Regional Report

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Brilliant red color is the hallmark of burning bush. Use it as a specimen plant or hedge.

Great Fall Color Plants

Whether it produces intensely blue skies or moody gray mist, autumn weather seems to be made specifically to highlight the leaf colors of deciduous plants. This is a good time to take notes on the plants that color up best and hold that color for many weeks. Here are a few of my favorites that are also easy to grow and make good additions to the garden.

Burning Bush

No plant can compare with the fire-engine red leaves of the aptly named burning bush (Euonymus alatus). The corky winged stems are an added benefit for winter interest in the garden. Burning bush is a relatively trouble-free plant, except for unwanted seedlings. The cultivar 'Compactus' has the most intense fall color, but don't be fooled by the name, as it can grow to 10 feet tall and wide. A new cultivar called 'Rudy Haag' slowly grows to 6 feet.

Virginia Sweetspire

A great shrub for both fall color and wonderful flowers is our native Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica). The cultivar 'Henry's Garnet' has compact growth to about 4 feet or so. The white spikes of early summer flowers are larger and more fragrant than the species version of Itea virginica. Plants have a graceful, rounded growth habit. Fall color tends more toward reddish purple than bright red. A new cultivar to look for is the even smaller 'Little Henry'.

Plants for Eating and Beholding

Because I love to eat, I like plants that are both beautiful and edible. Tops in this category are highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum). Although the plants have a somewhat open growth, a row still makes a good 6- to 8-foot hedge that turns orange and scarlet in the fall.

The various native sumacs also have great fall color. Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) grows to 4 feet, and shining sumac (R. copallina) reaches 12 feet. Both have red-orange fall color. Staghorn sumac (R. typhina) and smooth sumac (R. glabra) are multistemmed small trees that grow to 18 feet with deep red coloration. The latter two have the added advantage of showy spikes of dark red fruit.

Sweet and Sour Gum

Besides the red and sugar maples (Acer rubrum and A. saccharum), sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and sour gum (Nyssa sylvatica) are the standouts. The fall color of the maples ranges from yellow to red-orange, while the sweet and sour gums are more reddish purple. All are native trees that can grow to 75 feet or more.

Larch to Gingko

One of the most interesting plants with golden fall color is the European larch (Larix decidua). Although it's a conifer, the needles drop after changing from pale green to yellow in late autumn. Larches grow to 75 feet or taller and the soft needles and drooping branches have a lovely lacy effect.

For a shining spire of yellow, consider gingko (Gingko biloba). Disease and pest free, this is one of the most adaptable of trees. It grows to 70 feet tall. If possible, choose a male tree, as the female bears unpleasantly smelling fruit.

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