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Fantastic Fall Foliage!

By Paul James

This year’s display of fall color in our urban forest has been absolutely fantastic. And now is the perfect time to shop for the best trees for fall color because you can see them in all their glory. It’s also the perfect time to plant them. So here’s a list of my favorites, all of which are genetically hard-wired to produce fantastic fall foliage.


This ancient conifer deserves a sunny spot in every yard. It’s beautiful throughout the growing season, but in fall its maidenhair fern-shaped leaves turn an intense, glowing yellow which, when backlit by the sun, are a sight to behold. Ginkgos can get quite large – as in up to 75 feet or so – but they grow very slowly. However, much smaller Ginkgos are available, including a dwarf called ‘Mariken,’ which grows to about three-feet tall.


The native Tupelo (also known as Black Gum) is another outstanding choice for fall color, but unfortunately it isn’t that well known in this area. Growing to roughly 30- to 50-feet tall, the Tupelo thrives in wet soil and yet once established is actually quite drought tolerant. Its bark has thick, blocky ridges that give it the look of alligator skin, which I love. But the real payoff comes in fall when its leaves turn red, orange, yellow, and purple. Females produce small fruits in winter that birds adore.

Tupelo colors up best in full sun, but it’ll tolerate some shade. What it won’t tolerate is alkaline soil.

Chinese Pistache

This tree is well known in our neck of the woods, and with good reason: it grows well just about anywhere you plant it so long as the soil drains well and it gets plenty of sun. What’s more, it’s rarely bothered by pests or diseases, and it’s heat and drought resistant. Chinese Pistache will grow at a moderate rate to around 30-feet tall and 20-feet wide. Fall color is variable – yellow, orange and/or red – but positively beautiful.


You certainly can’t go wrong with Autumn Blaze and October Glory maples. Both are hugely popular and widely planted, growing to around 40- to 50-feet tall. But my favorite maple is the Shantung. It tops out at around 25 feet, has an interesting rough rather than smooth bark, and its leaves emerge reddish-purple in spring, then turn green in summer, and finally change to a bright yellow-orange in fall.

Japanese Maples

Of course, you can’t go wrong with just about any of the Japanese maples either, whether upright or weeping forms. Just keep in mind that they do best with just a few hours of morning sun followed by shade the rest of the day. And in my opinion, the green-leaved varieties tend to produce better (and longer lasting) fall color than their red relatives.

Red Oaks

Among red oaks, both Shumard and Nuttall produce the best fall color, which is reddish-yellow to orange. Both are tough and highly adaptable to soils in this area, making them among the easiest of all oaks to grow. And both are native.


Better known for their brilliant display of flowers in spring, dogwoods produce brilliant red to deep crimson-purple fall foliage as well. Like Japanese maples, they need afternoon shade to prevent leaf scorching.


Like dogwoods, redbuds show their stuff when they bloom in early spring, but their yellow fall foliage is gorgeous, and they’re among the first to change colors in the fall.

And Finally…

I have two sweetgum trees on my property, and although my wife despises the seed balls they drop, their fall color is killer. The same is true of sycamores, another common tree that can be a tad messy at times, but nevertheless produces beautiful fall color (and beautiful bark in winter). And lastly, I love the rust-colored leaves of bald cypress trees. They rarely make other writers lists of trees for fall color, but they’re on mine.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

P.S. For my list of shrubs that produce fantastic fall foliage, which can also be planted now, go to

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6 responses to “Fantastic Fall Foliage!”

  1. Connie says:

    Your articles are always si helpful and interesting. I was pleased to learn there is a small Ginkgo tree.

  2. Larry Ahrens says:

    Great article as always. Well chosen list.

  3. Linda Newton says:

    In Romance w/ the Bald Cypress also… gorgeous dappled sunlight that dances thru out the garden by day…. in fall, a precious sign…. rust colored feathers … pest & disease free – always a winner!
    so thankful for your full recovery… & quess what… spring is around the corner
    So appreciate You & your wit & insight!
    Linda M-N

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