We’ve now had the season’s first light frosts here in the Tennessee Valley, and many plants are showing signs of entering winter dormancy. Indian Summer brought especially beautiful foliage to the valley this year, while strangely withholding the autumn show in the mountains. In many spots, it seemed as if the trees changed color one day, then dropped their leaves the next. The autumn color display is affected by many factors, including the previous season’s rainfall amounts, temperature and day length. That explains the variation in peak days and color intensity from one year to the next.
Home gardeners can take advantage of genetics to help guarantee that the trees and shrubs on their property put on a maximum show every year. Numerous cultivars have been selected for the brilliance of their autumn foliage. Here are some suggestions to help make next year’s display memorable.
|Foithergilla gardenii 'Mt. Airy'|
Among fruit and nut trees, many growers would probably cite serviceberry (Amelanchier species and hybrids) as among those with beautiful fall foliage. The cultivar ‘Autumn Brilliance’ can be grown as a small tree or multi-stemmed shrub. In addition to the bright red foliage, it offers edible fruit in summer. For larger properties, it is hard to beat a hickory for bright yellow leaves in fall. Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) is prized also for the quality of its nuts and the ease of shelling them. Nut trees typically grow very large (>100 ft tall) and take about 7 years to begin bearing.
The old standbys for brilliant fall color are sugar maple, Acer saccharum and red, or “swamp” maple, A. rubrum. Both get quite large. A more compact possibility is Japanese maple, A. palmatum. Numerous cultivars, such as ‘Osakazuke,’ have been selected specifically for their fall display. Good ones include ‘Seriyu,’ ‘Bloodgood,’ and ‘Fall’s Fire.’ A nice one with multiple colors is ‘Kagero.’ For something a little different with shining, golden yellow fall foliage, try one of the dwarf cultivars of Ginko biloba, such as ‘Jade Butterfly’ or ‘Chi Chi.’
Among native species, chokecherry, Aronia arbutifolia, produces white spring blooms, red fruits and bright orange-red foliage. Shrubby Fothergilla gardenii or dwarf fothergilla, seldom exceeds six feet in height. Cream-colored, honey-scented flowers in spring are followed in autumn by a bright, multicolor display. Hearts-a-bustin’ (Euonymus americana) adds the colors of its interesting fruits to a mixed border, as will American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). The latter’s fruit is edible, too. Blueberries (Vaccinium) turn various shades of coral, red and pink in the fall, depending upon the cultivar. Another colorful native plant is Arkansas bluestar (Amsonia hubrechtii). It is a perennial that grows to the size of a medium shrub, about three or four feet in diameter. In spring, tall stems are topped with pale blue flowers, and in fall the whole plant assumes a bright golden yellow color.
From the first hard freeze to the middle of February is the best time to plant any of these trees or shrubs. Local independent garden centers stock them, or can order them for you.