What’s the best part about fall? Some may say it’s the pumpkin lattes and comfort food, the cozy scarves and boots, or the crisp air and refreshing rain showers… the list goes on and on. We may be biased, but our absolute favorite part about this season is the fall color!
Watching the leaves turn to brilliant colors like gold, amber, and red is something else. It’s quite enjoyable to observe the changing trees and kaleidoscope of hues as we’re driving around town, but what’s better than admiring these colorful transitions in your own backyard? Not only can trees give your landscape that cherished autumn vibrancy—shrubs and vines can play a part, too.
You can even help maximize fall color in your yard by protecting leaves from getting burnt during the heat of the summer (as best you can) and avoiding fertilizing deciduous trees and shrubs too close to the end of the season.
The Science Behind Fall Color
Fall leaf-change timing and magnitude is determined by leaf pigments present in the plant, the length of night, and weather conditions.
As days shorten and nighttime increases, chlorophyll production in leaves begins to slow and eventually stops. All remaining chlorophyll is destroyed and the colors produced by carotenoids (orange/yellow) and anthocyanins (reds/purples) are revealed. Many trees and shrubs are well-known for their colorful fall displays and although the beauty may be fleeting, seasonal storms bring them down for a closer look!
Some of our favorite landscape plant selections for beautiful fall color:
Trees & Shrubs
Maples: Renowned for their vivid autumn foliage, we can’t list fall interest trees without featuring the classic maple! There are so many wonderful varieties to choose from, each with unique traits that distinguish them from one another, from leaf shape and texture to growth habit and size. Most maples are also drought-tolerant once established. A few of our favorites include:
- Vine Maple (Acer circinatum): PNW NATIVE
- Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum)
- Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
- Autumn Blaze Maple (Acer x freemanii)
- October Glory Maple (Acer rubrum)
Gingko or Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba): With its distinct, fan-shaped leaves and the fact that it is actually a living fossil, the Gingko is a stunning plant, but on top of that, the leaves turn golden yellow in the fall! It establishes easily and grows at a medium rate (13–24 inches per year) reaching 25–50 feet tall and 25–35 feet wide at maturity. Drought-tolerant once established, this deciduous tree prefers full sun and partial shade to thrive.
Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica): Closely related to witch hazel, this plant’s oval or oblong, toothed leaves feature variable shades of yellow, orange, and red in fall. The Parrotia grows to 20-40 feet tall and 20-30 feet wide at maturity; can be pruned into a multi-stemmed shrub. The crimson petal-less flowers and peeling bark add to the appeal of this sun-loving, deciduous tree.
Raywood Ash (Fraxinus oxycarpa): The Raywood Ash tree starts the season with beautiful, dark green leaves (lanceolate in shape with serrated edges) that turn to a rich wine red in the fall. It is a vigorous grower to 60 to 70 feet tall and almost as wide—this large tree is perfect if you are looking to add considerable shade into your landscape. It prefers full sun and is drought resistant.
Smoketree (Cotinus): Depending on the cultivar, the spring/summer leaves may be green, golden, or burgundy, but in the fall, they turn colors like yellow, orange, red, pink, and purple. The unique billowy hairs on the spent flower clusters are what give this striking small tree or large accent shrub its name. It grows at a medium rate (13–24 inches per year) to 10–15 feet tall and around 12 feet wide at maturity. The smoke tree prefers full sun to thrive.
Witch Hazel (Hamamelis): In the fall, the textured leaves on this unusual shrub turn multi-colored, followed by fragrant, tasseled, coppery-orange flowers on bare branches in winter. Witch Hazel grows at a medium rate to 15–30 feet tall and 15–25 feet wide at maturity; can be trained into a small tree; grows best in full sun or partial shade.
Witch Alder (Fothergilla): One of the showiest shrubs in the landscape, fothergilla has blue/green foliage that turns various shades of orange red, and purple in the fall, followed by fragrant early spring flowers. The larger fothergilla (Fothergilla major) may reach 6–10 feet in height, whereas the dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) may reach 3 feet tall. They both prefer full sun.
Tiger Eyes Sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’ Tiger Eyes): A gorgeous, multifaceted deciduous shrub, the Tiger Eyes Sumac has chartreuse leaves that turn pink and orange like an intense sunset. The compound leaves are also long enough to use in bouquets for pops of color in fall décor! This cultivar of sumac typically matures to 6 feet tall and as wide, and prefers full sun or partial shade.
Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus): True to its name, the leaves on this shrub turn a brilliant red in the fall—it’s vibrant color is striking against our cloudy fall days in the Pacific Northwest. It can be easily pruned and shaped to preference. The larger variety grows up to 15 feet tall at maturity, and there are two dwarf cultivars for those that lack ample space: ‘Rudy Haag’ is the smallest cultivar and is a slow grower up to 5 feet, while the ‘Compactus’ cultivar can grow up to 10 feet.
Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia): A close relative of Boston ivy, this vine can be high-climbing or trailing, ranging from 3 to 40 feet. Its compound-palmate leaves (5 saw-toothed leaflets) morph into gorgeous shades of reddish-orange to burgundy in fall. Best fall foliage color is more likely to occur in sunny locations, though it tolerates full shade.
Boston Ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata): A vigorous clinging vine with lush foliage, Boston ivy can grow from 30 to 50 feet, requiring a decent amount of maintenance to keep its growth in check; can be used as a climbing vine or as ground cover. It’s large, lobed leaves turn from scarlet to purple in fall. This vine prefers full sun to partial shade.
List By Color
Red: Red Maple (Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’), Burning Bush (Euonymus alata ‘Compactus’), Fothergilla, many varieties of Japanese Maples (Acer japonicum and Acer palmatum)
Purple-Red: Dogwood (Cornus), Smoke Bush (Cotinus), Boston Ivy & Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus), Raywood Ash (Fraxinus oxycarpa)
Yellow: Ginkgo, Birch, many varieties of Japanese Maples (Acer japonicum and Acer palmatum)
Orange: Persian Ironwood (Parrotia), Spiraea, many varieties of Japanese Maples (Acer japonicum and Acer palmatum), Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum)
Rainbow: Vine Maple (Acer circinatum), Witch Hazel (Hamamelis)
Stock is limited at our garden centers and varies by location.