Glorious Fall Foliage

Cercidiphyllum japonicum, Katsura tree
Cercidiphyllum japonicum, Katsura tree

Every season has its golden child. Its pride and joy, the thing we celebrate above all else.

Spring has her cheerful bulbs poking their heads out of the ground after a long sleep, and bright, succulent greens. Summer has the warm breezes, serious flowers that know what it’s all about, and berries to fill our bellies.

Winter has her glorious blanket of white, the deep greens of the evergreens, and the subtle colors and textures of twigs and bark. Now I see it is hard to choose just one star of each season.

Fall is easy, however. LEAVES. Running through them, making huge piles of them, throwing them up in the air to have them rain down on you, or simply drinking in their glorious transformation from their summer green to an explosion of colors.

Golden colors of the PNW natives
Golden colors of the PNW natives

Evergreens are in for the long haul. They are workhorses that never stop regardless of the season. As winter approaches, they hunker down, their foliage protected by a tough, waxy coating, and their cells protected further with special anti-freeze substances.

Deciduous plants have type B personalities. Once the longer nights signal the imminent return of winter cold and windstorms, they store up some supplies for the long, dreary months; throw a fantastic foliar show; cover their feet with a blanket of leaves; and take a rest.

The change starts at the extremities of the branches, and from the top down.

Cornus stolonifera, Redtwig dogwood
Cornus stolonifera, Redtwig dogwood

As deciduous plants begin to prepare for winter dormancy, photosynthesis slows down and then stops; chlorophyll is no longer produced; and the other pigments become visible, no longer masked by the green of chlorophyll.

Acer freemanii 'Autumn Blaze', Autumn blaze maple
Acer freemanii ‘Autumn Blaze’, Autumn blaze maple

Many of our native trees turn yellow in the fall, but a few liven things up with various shades of red. The hairy honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula) turns a deep purple with bright-red berries. The wild roses can turn a deep red, along with shiny, red rose hips. Oregon grape colors up with some reds and purples. Redtwig dogwood’s leaves match its colorful twigs.

Many of our natives — like the beautiful madrona (Arbutus menziesii) as well as ash (Sorbus sitchensis, and Sorbus scopulina) – sport colorful berries this time of year.

We can include many ornamental trees and shrubs in our landscapes that are truly beautiful in the fall. I recently visited the Seattle Arboretum, the Bloedel reserve and the Bainbridge Gardens nursery and Bainbridge Island neighborhoods to share some favorites.

Cercidiphyllum japonicum, Katsura tree
Cercidiphyllum japonicum, Katsura tree

Trees that put on a Wonderful Foliar Display

  • Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum): gorgeous yellows, apricots, purples with red or yellow petioles
  • Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum): red, orange to purple, white flower sprays transitioning to seed
  • Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica: deepest of purples, golds and oranges
  • Witchhazels (Hamamelis): reds, yellows
  • Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia): gold, orange, red, with interesting seed pods
  • Red maple (Acer rubrum): red-purple
  • Sugar maple (Acer saccharum): red-orange
  • Villa Taranto maple (Acer palmatum linearilobum ‘Villa Taranto’): red, burgundy, purple
  • Plumose Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica Elegans): evergreen; bronze purple
  • European mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia): yellow to red-purple
  • Carpinus caroliniana 'Firespire', Firespire American hornbeam
    Carpinus caroliniana ‘Firespire’, Firespire American hornbeam

    Autumn purple white ash (Fraxinus americana ‘Autumn Purple’): red, burnt orange, yellow, maroon-purple

  • Flame and Raywood ash (Fraxinus oxycarpa ‘Flame’, F. oxycarpa ‘Raywood’): purple, wine red, burgundy
  • Golden Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides ‘Aurea’): yellow, greenish yellow
  • Fernleaf full moon maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’): burgundy, with some green
  • Brandywine red maple (Acer rubrum ‘Brandywine’): red, apricot
  • Autumn Blaze maple (Acer freemanii ‘Autumn Blaze’): orange red
  • Bowhall red maple (Acer rubrum ‘Bowhall’): orange, red, gold
  • Franklinia (Franklinia antamaha): fragrant, white flowers; purple, copper, red foliage
  • Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua): a kaleidoscope of colors from red and yellow to orange, purple and burgundy
  • Firespire American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana ‘Firespire’): apricot-yellow, orange, red
  • Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina): yellow, orange, red
  • Autumn gold ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba ‘Autumn Gold’): bright yellow
Rhus aromatica 'Gro-Low', Gro-Low fragrant sumac
Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’, Gro-Low fragrant sumac

Noteworthy Fall Shrubs/Small Trees

  • Sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’): deep-red to purple, with red stems
  • Miss Kim lilac (Syringa pubescens subsp, patula ‘Miss Kim’): deep-purple and pink
  • Draper highbush blueberry and other blueberry cultivars (Vaccinium spp): orange, red, purple
  • Aronia (Aronia melanocarpa ‘Autumn Magic’): orange, red, purple, shiny black berries
  • Double file viburnum ( Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesi’): golden, reds, orange
  • Redtwig dogwood (Cornus stolonifera): purple, apricot, yellow, colorful bark
  • Gro-low fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’): scarlet to orange
  • Weston’s Innocence azalea (Rhododendron ‘Weston’s Innocence’): deep-burgundy to purple
  • Grace hybrid smoke bush (Cotinus x ‘Grace’): rich red
  • Golden spike winter hazel (Corylopsis spicata ‘Aurea’): yellow foliage with red splashes
  • Buttercup winter hazel (Corylopsis pauciflora): yellow
  • Arnold Promise witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’): rusty orange
  • Feuerhauzauber witch hazel (Hamammelis x Feruerhauzauber): copper
  • Redbud hazel (Disanthus cercidifolius): burgundy, crimson, orange
Parthenocissus tricuspidata 'Veitchii', Boston ivy
Parthenocissus tricuspidata ‘Veitchii’, Boston ivy

Climbing Vine

  • Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata ‘Veitchii’): copper to burgundy
  • Purple-leaf grape (Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’): deep reds

Colorful Fruits

  • Red Jewel flowering crabapple (Malus ‘Red Jewel’): red fruits, yellow foliage
  • Western mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina): red fruits, yellow foliage
  • Chinese dogwoods, several cultivars (Cornus kousa): orange foliage; large, red fruits; attractive to squirrels
  • Purple-leaf grape (Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’): deep blue-purple fruit clusters, burgundy foliage
  • Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina): panicles of red seedheads; red, orange foliage
  • Profusion beautyberry (Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’): rich-purple clusters of berries
  • Firethorn (Pyracantha mohave): orange or red berries