Selecting Trees for a Stunning Autumn Display

By Janine Anderson
Professional Member, APLD

"Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower."
Albert Camus

Few sights are more glorious than brilliant autumn foliage filtered by the light of the sun as it undergoes its southerly migration. As the chlorophyll in the leaves of deciduous trees slows to a halt and the leaves' true colors are manifested, pilgrimages are undertaken to regions renowned for their stunning autumn displays--New England, Great Smoky Mountains, Great Lakes…. Outstanding displays can be found closer to home as well, including, with a little planning, in your own backyard! Now is the perfect time to visit area nurseries to select from among the plethora of outstanding trees that will brighten your fall garden.

This article profiles some of the best trees for a splendid autumn display and provides tips on how to show them off to their best advantage.

Favorite Trees for Fall Color
For many of us, maples, particularly Japanese maples, are the first plants we wax poetically about when discussing fall color, and it is undeniable that many varieties of Japanese maples offer a breathtaking autumn display. For proof, one need only visit Washington Park Arboretum's Woodland Garden or Japanese Garden in mid October.

Fall color, Japanese maples, garden texture
The Woodland Garden at Seattle's Washington Park Arboretum houses one of the largest collections of Japanese maples in North America, in addition to many other fine woodland plants. Photo by North Beach Landscapes

Given there are more than 250 Japanese maple cultivars, deciding on the right one for your garden can be daunting. A good place to narrow down your search is on the Great Plant Picks (GPP) website, which lists 24 different Japanese maples (including varieties of Acer palmatum, Acer japonicum, and Acer shirasawanum) that are considered outstanding plants for maritime Northwest gardens. These maples vary widely in size, form, foliage, and cultural needs, such as sun/shade and irrigation requirements. Two personal favorites not included on the GPP list are Acer palmatum 'Koto-no-Ito', which has been featured in a Seattle Japanese Garden blog, and Acer palmatum 'Villa Taranto', an upright selection that gets six to eight feet tall in ten years, has very fine, almost filigreed foliage, and turns bright yellow to red in fall.

Fall color, Acer palmatum 'Koto no Ito', planting design
Linear, red to yellow foliage of Acer palmatum 'Koto-no-Ito' in mid October. Leaves of oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia 'Pee Wee') to the left are transitioning from green to burgundy. Photo and design by North Beach Landscapes

Brilliantly colored foliage helps ease the transition from long summer days to the shorter, darker, cooler days of fall and winter. Just because a tree boasts spectacular fall color does not mean it is uninteresting during the remainder of the year. Every one of the trees mentioned in this article has attributes in three--and often four--seasons. None of the trees in the garden below, for example, were selected exclusively for their fall color, yet what a sight for sore eyes!

Fall color, Acer japonicum 'Acontifolium', garden design
Eye-catching array in this October 23 photo includes full-moon maple (Acer japonicum 'Acontifolium') in foreground on left, grove of yellowing river birch (Betula nigra) in the background, and witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia 'Pallida') on far right, along with the grass-like plumes of Molina caerulea ssp. caerulea 'Variegata' and perennial eastern blue star (Amsonia tabernaemontana) to the right of the stairs. Photo and design by North Beach Landscapes

In addition to Japanese maples, other types of maples exhibit blazing tones in the fall as well. Paperbark maple (Acer griseum), Pacific sunset maple (Acer 'Warrenred'), and our native vine maple (Acer circinatum) are just a few of the many splendid choices.

Other favorites for fall that can be perused on the GPP website include Stewartia pseudocamellia and Stewartia monadelpha, katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), American smoke tree (Cotinus obovatus), sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), Ginkgo biloba, black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica), and Japanese zelkova (Zelkova serrata). Several other great choices not included on the GPP site are Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei) and eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis). Many cultivated varieties of some of the species listed have features--such as the more intense foliage color of Ginkgo biloba 'Autumn Gold' or the more narrow and upright form of Parrotia persica 'Vanessa'--that might make them preferable to the straight species.

Fall color, Stewartia monadelpha, garden design
Early November view of foliage and cinnamon-colored bark of Stewartia monadelpha against backdrop of yellow-leafed Chinese witch hazels (Hamamelis mollis) in Winter Garden of Seattle's Washington Park Arboretum. Photo by North Beach Landscapes
Fall color, Lagerstroemia x indica 'Natchez', garden design
Tones of peachy orange, red, and burgundy on crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica x fauriei 'Natchez') pair well with bluish foliage of Salvia officinalis 'Berggarten' in back and grayish green leaves of Jerusalem sage (Phlomis) in the foreground to the right. Photo and design by North Beach Landscapes
Fall color, Oxydendrum arboreum, fall flowers
Late October view of sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) in Seattle's Washington Park Arboretum. Sourwood's dangling clusters of white flowers bloom in late summer and accompany the brilliant fall foliage. Photo by North Beach Landscapes

Other Considerations
Your living tree is a work of art in your garden. As with other works of art, it needs to be properly showcased to be appreciated most fully. Thoughtful siting and carefully selected companion plants are critical. Framing your tree against a dark backdrop, such as a wall of tall evergreen conifers, can further set if off.

When designing for fall color, try to stagger the timing of your display so that it lasts for several months. Crape myrtle and Paperbark maple are two trees that keep their fall leaves and color well into November.

Finally, before you rake and shred the colorful fallen leaves, take time to appreciate how they continue to brighten both your garden and your mood as the days become shorter, darker, and cooler.

Fall color, Malus 'Adirondack', fallen leaves
Fallen leaves from crabapple (Malus 'Adirondack') blanket and brighten stairs and walkway. Photo and design by North Beach Landscapes

If you can't decide on the right tree for your garden, consider consulting a landscape designer for help. Professional landscape designers are passionate about plants and can assist in the selection process.