Trees and Shrubs for Fall Color

fall color trees and shrubs japanese mapleWhat is it about viewing a display of autumn leaves that is so invigorating? According to scientists, the psychological and physiological effects of the colors of autumn are many. The dazzling changes and saturated colors are exciting to view in contrast to what had been green.

Viewing leafy vistas interrupts the stress of the day and can also evoke pleasant memories of autumns gone by. And that autumn neighborhood walk offers even more health benefits when it includes viewing the changing leaves.

How about creating that same fall feeling in your own yard by planting colorful trees or shrubs?

Planted sparingly, colorful ornamental trees can add a focal point to a landscape design. Planted in groups, trees can provide needed shade, privacy or a wind break. And, trees are a great investment. A healthy medium-sized shade tree can add from five to 15 percent to a home’s value.

The colorful fall foliage tree list for the metro Washington D.C. area includes the red maple (Acer rubrum), ash (Fraxinux), beech (Fagus), and hickory (Carya). But why plant a large tree with a very long wait for maturity? Picking a medium-sized tree (30-40 feet tall) will provide gratification faster. Picking a smaller tree or shrub will capture attention by bringing that color up close and into better view.

Below are great tree and shrub picks that feature red or maroon foliage or those that turn orange or red in the fall. Some plants on this list are natives, pollinators, or feature other characteristics such as flowers, berries, or drought-tolerance.

Recommended trees for red and orange foliage in fall:

  • Aurora Dogwood (Cornus kousa x C. florida 'Rutban (Aurora®)' ) Height: 15-20  feet
  • Laceleaf Japanese Maple (Acer palmatumDissectum atropurpureum’) Height: 6-8 feet
  • Shantung Maple (Acer truncatum ‘Fire Dragon®’) Height: 25-35 feet
  • Shadblow Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) Height: 25-30 feet
    serviceberry fall color tree

Also consider planting deciduous trees and shrubs that exhibit red or burgundy foliage throughout the regular growing season. While fall color change may be minimal, these plants make great accents.

  • Heavenly Bamboo ‘Flirt’ (Nandina domestica ‘Murasaki’) Height: 1-2 feet
    heavenly bamboo flirt
  • Forest Pansy Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis 'Forest Pansy’) Height: 20-30 feet
  • Velvet Cloak Smoke Tree (Cotinus Coggygria 'Velvet Cloak') Height: 10-15 feet
    fall color smoke bush

Recommended shrubs that turn red and orange in fall:

  • Brilliant Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’) Height: 6-8 feet
  • Redbud-Leaved Hazel (Disanthus cercidifolius) Height: 6-10 feet
    fall color witch hazel
  • Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) Height: 5-8 feet
  • Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet) Height: 3-6 feet
  • Mapleleaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) Height: 3-6 feet
    viburnum fall color tree

Quick tree selection tips

Start by looking at recommended tree lists for your area. Your local extension service, state forestry department, or local garden club or homeowners’ association are good places to start. Narrow down the tree list by the space, exposure, soil and moisture characteristics of the desired planting site. Then go and visit some trees-- in the neighborhood, arboreta and formal gardens, and local nurseries. Further narrow down the list by the additional desired characteristics of the new planting, including growth rate. When the time comes to buy, purchase the largest sized specimen that you can afford.

Select Gardens and Arboreta



Washington, D.C.

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