Maybe the South doesn't brag about its blazing fall colors (because that's just bad manners), but Southern gardeners can enjoy autumn splendor every bit as lovely as the sugar maples in Vermont or the aspens in the Rockies. "Many trees that are suited to the South do feature showstopping fall colors," says Greg Huber, a Georgia Registered Landscape Architect (RLA) and program coordinator of the certified landscape and plant professional programs at the Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture, University of Georgia. "Autumn also is a good time to plant because milder conditions in the fall, winter and spring are conducive to root development so your tree can withstand heat better next summer."
When shopping, remember to read the tree's description or plant tag so that you know it can survive winters in your USDA Hardiness zone (find yours here). Also, make sure you choose the perfect spot in your yard. Tree colors are brilliantly lit around sunrise and sunset, so careful tree placement can maximize visual impact as the foliage changes, says Huber. Finally, don't forget to pay attention to a tree's mature height and spread, or width. "It would be a tragedy to spend years nurturing a tree only to have to cut it down or slay it with heavy pruning because it outgrew your space," says Huber.
Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
Height: 50 feet
Spread: 40 foot
Fall color: Purple-red
This native maple makes an excellent accent tree with its silvery furrowed bark and oval form.
'Somerset' is a variety that performs well in heat and humidity.
Gingko (Ginkgo Biloba)
Mature size: 25 to 50 feet
Spread: 25 to 30 feet
Fall color: Brilliant gold
This long-lived tree has beautiful fan-shaped leaves. It's a living fossil, with the earliest leaf fossils dating to 270 million years ago. Unfortunately, the fruit of the female tree is messy and smells disgusting as it decomposes. However, if you have your heart set on this tree, seek out a male cultivar, which will not bear fruit. Look for 'Autumn Gold,' or 'Goldspire, which has a striking columnar form.
Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
Height: 3 to 25 feet
Spread: 4 to 25 feet, depending on the cultivar
Fall color: Yellow-orange to red-orange to deep red, depending on the cultivar
Japanese maples are graceful, elegant trees that fit in even the smallest gardens. They come in a wide variety of different sizes and weeping or upright forms; read the plant tags carefully so you know what you're buying. Every type has interesting foliage and unmatched fall color. A few stand-out cultivars include 'Seiryu,' 'Fireglow,' 'Katsura,' or 'Osakazuki.'
Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis)
Height: 30 to 35 feet
Spread: 20 to 30 feet
Fall color: Yellow, orange, and red
Native to China and the Philippines, this tree has long, slender leaves and a beautiful, dense rounded canopy. It's also heat and drought tolerant and can handle most types of soil, including sandy and rocky.
Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)
Height: 30 to 50 feet
Spread: 30 to 50 feet
Fall color: Rust-orange to rust-red
This native tree is a deciduous conifer with feathery foliage that's an excellent choice for both dry or wet soils. It's known for being able to survive in the saturated flood plains of the Southeast. You're going to need a lot of space for this tree, but it provides impressive amounts of shade once mature.
Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica)
Height: 15 feet
Spread: 10 feet
Fall color: Scarlet red
This less commonly known native tree, also called tupelo, is a great small to medium-sized choice for more compact gardens. It holds onto its leaves longer than many other deciduous trees before putting on its show. 'Zydeco Twist' is a variety with eye-catching zig zag branches that add winter interest to your garden.
Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)
Height: 10 to 25 feet
Spread: 10 to 20 feet, varies by cultivar (cultivated variety)
Fall color: Yellow to red, depending on variety
This Southern favorite should be allowed to grow in its natural tree form instead of pruning it back. Light selective pruning to remove dead, broken or cross-branched limbs is fine, but otherwise, leave it alone! Cultivars that are mildew resistant and have great fall color include 'Acoma,' 'Biloxi,' and 'Natchez.'
Southern Sugar Maple (Acer barbatum)
Height: 40 to 50 feet
Spread: 20 to 35 feet
Fall color: Orange and yellow with some red
You can have that classic fall color you've always wanted when you plant this native maple. It's sometimes also called Florida maple. Like many types of maples, it's a fast grower, and it needs plenty of space.
Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum)
Mature size: 25 feet tall
Spread: 20 feet
Fall color: Scarlet red
This medium-sized tree, native to central China, has cinnamon-colored peeling bark that provides year-round interest, especially in the otherwise bleak winter landscape. It's a fairly slow grower.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis)
Height: 15 to 25 feet
Spread: 15 to 25-feet
Fall color: Orange-red
This medium-sized tree is just about perfect with spring blooms, edible summer fruit for jellies and jams (if you get to it before the birds do!), and gorgeous autumn color. Look for the cultivar 'Autumn Brilliance' for unmatched fall foliage.