10 Best Trees To Plant For Fall Color

·5 min read
Ginko Grove Boyce Virginia
Ginko Grove Boyce Virginia

Roger Foley

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.

October Glory Red Maple Tree
October Glory Red Maple Tree

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.

Ginkgo Biloba Tree
Ginkgo Biloba Tree

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.'

Asheville Garden Japanese Maple
Asheville Garden Japanese Maple

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.

Chinese Pistache Tree
Chinese Pistache Tree

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.

Brilliant Orange Fall Foliage on a Bald Cypress Tree in Texas.
Brilliant Orange Fall Foliage on a Bald Cypress Tree in Texas.

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.

Nyssa Sylvatica
Nyssa Sylvatica

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.'

 

Luscious Crepe Myrtle in Fall
Luscious Crepe Myrtle in Fall

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.

sugar-maple_phixr.jpg
sugar-maple_phixr.jpg

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.

Paperbark Maple in Fall
Paperbark Maple in Fall

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.

Crimson Serviceberry Leaves
Crimson Serviceberry Leaves