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10 Best Trees for Autumn Color

autumn leaves

Autumn is officially here and as I look around, I see tress beginning to put off their greens for gold and scarlet. The turning of the leaves is one of my favorite times of the year, despite the fact that winter follows it.

Even growing up in the Central Great Plains, away from any native forests, I saw the benefits of trees. They provide shade, protection from storms and wind, and habitat for wildlife. One of the first things my parents did after building their house, was to plant a windbreak and several shade trees.

Now that I live near a native forest in Northeast Kansas, I get to see the natural colors of the autumn leaves. On my own 5 acres, I have already started planting trees for shade and wildlife, but also for fall color. There are 10 trees that I can recommend to anyone wanting more autumn color for their landscape.

What Causes Autumn Color Change?

As the days shorten and temperatures of both day and night become cooler, trees slow and stop the production of chlorophyll. Once it stops, and the chlorophyll begins to break down, chemicals that have been waiting in the leaves mix with the residues of the chlorophyll and form the different colors we see in leaves.

leaf color change chart

Chemicals such as carotenes, xanthophylls, and anthocyanins help produce colors of brown, yellow, red, orange, and purple, depending their amount and the weather.

Wet and cloudy weather increases the intensity of coloration across all ranges of trees. For example, pin oaks (Quercus palustris) normally are brown to reddish-brown here, because of a dry autumn. However, we sometimes get a wet autumn, which results in bright, scarlet red colored pin oak leaves.

Another weather pattern that favors reds and brighter colors is cool temperatures above freezing. However, if we get an early frost, red colors are weakened.

Sugar Maple

sugar maple in autumn
The author’s sugar maple in October

The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is perhaps one of the most well-known trees for autumn color. The New England states are known for their fall colors, and sugar maples make up a great part of this. Most sugar maples turn varying shades of gold, yellow, red, or orange, often with a mix of the colors.

I have 2 large sugar maples in my own landscape; 1 that turns bright golden yellow and 1 that turns fiery reddish-orange. It is a delight to see these tree light up the landscape each autumn.

There are many cultivars of sugar maples available in the nursery trade, but the one that stands out the most in my mind is Grimm’s Gardens’ own cultivar, ‘Oregon Trail’. This tree was selected after a city-wide contest in Hiawatha, KS. Hiawatha is known as “The City of Beautiful Maples”. There are hundreds of beautiful sugar maples across much of Northeast Kansas, in the counties of Nemaha, Brown, Doniphan, and Atchison.

The native range for sugar maples is along the Appalachian mountains westward throughout the Midwest and the Eastern Great Plains. However, they can be planted in many locations of the United States with great success.

Growing Recommendations

Sugar Mapes prefer to grow in full sun to part shade locations. Most sugar maples grow 40 to 80 feet tall by 30 to 40 feet wide. Sugar maples are adaptable to heavy clay soils but may grow better in slightly acidic, loamy soils that mimic their native environments in forests.

Pollinators and Pests

Sugar maples are subject to some pest problems and pollinator feeding. There are 68 species of butterflies and moths that will feed on maples, 5 of which eat nothing else. Besides these, aphids, lacebugs, and whiteflies can be a problem on maple leaves.

There are also a variety of gall-forming insects that feed on maples, including maple bladder-gall mites, which form small, reddish bumps on the surface of leaves.

Paperbark Maple

close up of paperbark maple leaf
Paperbark maple leaf close-up

The paperbark maple (Acer griseum) is one of my all-time favorite trees. This is an outstanding small, ornamental understory tree. In Kansas and farther south, it needs some protection from full sun, and more importantly, late afternoon sun. The leaves can burn in the heat of summer if placed on the west or northwest side of the house or property.

However, if located correctly, the paperbark maple will become one of your favorite trees as well. It has leaves in groups of 3, similar to poison ivy, but they are soft and hairy instead of smooth. The tree has 2 great attributes; its autumn leaf color and its bark.

The bark is peeling, colored in cinnamon to sand to burnt orange. This makes it a great tree for winter interest. If grown with the branches down low, you can really find the bark in a special corner of the garden.

In the fall, the leaves of paperbark maple turn red to reddish orange. The color is really outstanding for a small tree and is very ornamental. I have 3 of these trees scattered throughout my shade gardens. One of the benefits is that they can be grown from seed, as is 1 of mine.

Growing Recommendations

Paperbark maples originate from central China. They grow best with late afternoon sun protection in part shade or as an understory tree under a larger tree. These ornamental trees grow 20 to 30 feet tall by 10 to 15 feet wide. They prefer well-drained soils, but are really adaptable to high pH and heavy clay soils.

Pollinators and Pests

There are no native pests or pollinators that feed on these trees, as they are from China. I have not seen any pest problems on my trees, only leaf burn where the sun gets them out of the shade.

Serviceberry

The serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), also known as the Juneberry, is native to most of the United States, excluding most of Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. However, there are some species of serviceberry growing in each of these state, just not widespread.

serviceberry in autumn
Serviceberries have red, orange, and apricot fall colors

There are both shrub and tree forms of serviceberry, but I am only concerned with the tree form today. Serviceberry trees are great for a lot of reasons, including fall color, spring flowers, edible fruit, and adaptability.

These small trees can grow in a variety of areas, from floodplains to forests and can handle full sun to part shade. In spring, they have gorgeous, pure white blooms that are attractive to bees and other pollinators. We often recommend serviceberry as a replacement for the invasive callery pear.

The fruit is dark blue and ripens in June, hence the name Juneberry. While it is favored by birds, the fruit is quite tasty and edible to humans. I have even made pies from these blueberry-like fruits. And unlike the blueberry, serviceberries will grow in alkaline soil without alteration.

But we are here for autumn color and the serviceberry does not disappoint. The leaves turn shades of red, apricot, and orange, all mixed together. The height of the tree makes it ornamental, but it can be used for shade if planted near a patio or pool.

Growing Recommendations

Serviceberry trees grow 15 to 35 feet tall by 15 to 20 feet wide. They are drought tolerant, but prefer to be growing where they get extra water, such as near a downspout or along a rain garden or swale. They are hardy in Zones 3 to 8.

Pollinators and Pests

There are 76 species of butterfly and moth that use serviceberries as a host plant, ranking it high for small trees and shrubs. The flowers attract many bees, butterflies, and other pollinators in springtime and the berries are popular with birds.

Serviceberries are susceptible to cedar-apple rust, but rarely suffer from it. They also have some slight issues with bacterial leaf spots. But mostly they stay disease-free.

Sourwood

International Forest of Friendship in Atchison, KS
The sourwood (circled) is a striking tree in autumn

The sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) is a unique plant in North America, there being only one of the genus of Oxydendron. It is a member of the heath family, as are blueberries and heather. The small, bell-shaped flowers are showy and fragrant, and visited in large numbers by honeybees.

The autumn color of this native tree is an exceptional shade of red to reddish-orange, with some purples. It is a small, understory tree that can grow in full sun to part shade. Sourwood is grown often by beekeepers for the honey from its flowers is said to be wonderful.

I first encountered a live specimen of sourwood at the International Forest of Friendship, in Atchison, KS. It is an amazing little tree which will catch your attention in spring or fall.

Growing Recommendations

The sourwood tree grows best in acid soils, as do all members of the heath family. It prefers well-drained, loamy to sandy soils, but is adaptable to heavy clay and high pH, if given an acid fertilizer each spring and fall. Sourwood grows 20 to 30 feet tall by 20 feet wide.

Pollinators and Pests

There is little to no documentation of any insects, except for fall webworm, using sourwood as a host plant. There are few if any disease issues. Honeybees do flock to the flowers in spring.

Ginkgo

ginkgo fall color
The ginkgo has consistent yellow fall color

The ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is known also as the maidenhair tree, though I have no idea as to why. It is a majestic, long-lived tree that dominates almost any landscape it is found in. The story of perhaps the oldest living ginkgo in North America can be found in my blog on state champion trees.

Ginkgo trees have the most consistent yellow fall color of any tree I know, that is why I included it here. The yellow is bright and clear, and often it seems to fall all off the tree at once, rather that a little at a time like other trees.

When picking out a ginkgo tree from the nursery, choose a male selection such as ‘Presidential Gold’. Female trees produce small round fruits, that smell similar to rotten meat when decomposing on the ground.

Growing Recommendations

Ginkgoes are highly adaptable to a variety of site and locations, but prefer full sun whatever the soil is. They grow 60 to 120 feet tall by 60 to 100 feet wide, and can live for centuries.

Pollinators and Pests

There are no native pollinators using ginkgo for a host plant and it has no disease issues.

Sweetgum

sweetgum leaf
A sweetgum leaf showing off yellow, red, orange, and purple colors

The sweetgum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua) is a southeastern U.S. native tree, that is adaptable to many other areas of the country. In autumn, we expect great purple color from the white ash, but ashes are dying everywhere from emerald ash borer, and most of the country’s nurseries have stopped selling them.

Sweetgums also produce purple fall color, mixed with oranges and yellows. In terms of messiness, I would say the sweetgum is also on par with the white ash; they both produce a large amount of annoying seeds. However, there is a big difference between stepping on the round, spiky balls of sweetgum versus the flat seeds of white ash.

But sweetgum does not have EAB to contend with. Sweetgums are large shade trees, with a vertical habit. They are pretty trees, with leaves that are similar to sugar maple in size and shape.

Growing Recommendations

The sweetgum tree grows 60 to 80 feet tall by 40 feet wide. They do best in full sun but can stand some shade when younger. Sweetgums grow best in well-drained, slightly acidic soils, but are adaptable to the high pH soils of the Midwest and Great Plains.

Pollinators and Pests

There are at least 30 species of butterflies and moths that utilize sweetgum as their host plant, include the luna and promethea moths. The seeds from the fruit are an important food source for many birds, including goldfinches, quails, and turkeys.

Pests include several species of scale insects, fall webworms, and stem girdlers. There are no major diseases associated with this tree.

Black Gum

black tupelo tree in autumn
Black gum trees have shiny leaves even in autumn

One of the prettiest trees in summer and autumn is the black gum or tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica). This Eastern U.S. native tree grows often along swamps or wet areas, where it does best. However, it is quite drought tolerant and can even be found native in Kansas. The leaves are a deep, shiny green, making it a very pretty tree in spring and summer.

In autumn, the leaves turn a brilliant burgundy-red. They are still shiny in autumn, making the red even more brilliant than other trees with similar color. No tree diverse landscape should be without this native species.

Growing Recommendations

The black gum prefers moist to well-drained soils, but is very adaptable and drought tolerant. However, extra moisture is necessary to produce better growth and autumn color. It grows 40 to 80 feet tall and 40 to 60 feet wide, in a pyramidal shape.

Pollinators and Pests

There are only around 10 species of butterflies and moths that use black gum for a host plant. Female and male flowers are borne on different trees, but are pollinated mostly by honeybees and native bees.

Pests include fall webworms, aphids, and borers (which attack the tree mostly when stressed or dying).

Scarlet Oak

scarlet oak 'Infraray Red' leaf color
Scarlet oak ‘Infraray Red’ fall leaf color

If you are looking for consistent, long-lasting, red fall color, then look no further. This is the tree for you. I cannot express my amazement at finding a tree with such a brilliant shade of red that hangs around past when all other trees have dropped their leaves.

The scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), grows mostly east of the Mississippi River natively, with a few western pockets in Missouri and Arkansas. However, it can be planted in the Great Plains and westward and is adaptable to many areas. It is a straight growing shade tree, and fairly fast for an oak tree, often growing 2 to 4 feet per year.

The red of the scarlet oak is what we term as “fire-engine” red, being bright and brilliant. Doug Grimm has selected a scarlet oak from the arboretum here at Grimm’s Gardens, known as ‘Infraray Red’, for it is more red than any other we have. Call us for more details on where to buy this tree.

Growing Conditions

The scarlet oak grows well in high pH soils, unlike pin oaks, which have been planted everywhere. They grow 40 to 60 feet tall and wide.

Pollinators and Pests

There are some 500 + butterflies and moths that use oaks as hosts. Anytime you plant or save an oak tree you are benefitting wildlife in your garden. Many birds feed on the caterpillars of these moths and butterflies, so you get birds where you have oaks.

There are also a large number of pest problems associated with oaks. The most concerning of these are Oak Wilt and iron chlorosis. Kermes scale is the most noticeable insect pest that causes significant damage to oaks. Lacebugs, several galls, and aphids also attack oaks. Look for a future blog on oaks for more information.

Sassafras

sassafras fall color
Sassafras in autumn

The sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a small native tree, found growing in the eastern half of the U.S., and westward into Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. It has interesting leaves which can be elliptical, mitten-shaped with a thumb, or tri-lobed like a red maple. The stems, when pruned or broken give off a pleasant, spicy odor.

The fall foliage is similar to that of sweetgum, with shades of yellow, orange, red, and sometimes even purple. It is a great addition to the landscape, whether planted in full sun or shade. I have seen several nice specimens in Nebraska City, NE, and we have some in full sun at the Grimm’s Gardens Arboretum.

Growing Recommendations

Sassafrass is best planted in full to part sun, in well-drained soils. It is adaptable to dry and heavy clay soils. It also grows well near water or in moist areas. This medium shade tree is slow-growing, reaching 40 to 60 feet tall by 20 to 30 feet wide.

Pollinators and Pests

Sassafras is an alternate host of the spicebush swallowtail, which normally feeds on the leaves of spicebush (Lindera benzoin). Some of the moths that feed on sassafras include the showy cecropia and promethea moths.

There are no noticeable diseases on sassafras, though the leaves may turn yellow in high pH soils (not to my knowledge in Northeast Kansas).

Baldcypress

bald cypress in autumn
The baldcypress in autumn

The common baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) is the last of the great trees for autumn color on this list. Another one of my favorite trees, this large shade tree is great for almost every landscape. Plant it where a downspout or sump-pump drains out and you will never have to worry about it.

Baldcypress trees are deciduous conifers, meaning that they produce seed cones, just like pines and spruces. Most conifers are evergreen. The autumn color of the baldcypress is a rusty orange to brownish orange. The needles are soft and easy to pick up or mow over after they have fallen.

Growing Recommendations

The baldcypress is native to swampy and wet areas in the southeastern U.S. It is best planted in full sun where, in an open area where it can have room to spread. Baldcypresses grow 60 to 100 feet tall by 40 to 60 feet wide. It prefers a wet spot, but is quite drought tolerant once established.

Pollinators and Pests

There are few if any known moths or butterflies that use baldcypress as a host plant.

It does have some issues with bagworms, galls, and twig blights, but mostly is a disease-free plant.

Conclusion

“Life is a Shade better under a Tree” – This quote is utilized most often by Grimm’s Gardens founder Doug Grimm, and represents the feeling of anyone who has ever enjoyed the shade of a tree they planted. Trees provide beauty, protection, and wildlife value in a way that few other plant groups can match. So plant a tree and enjoy!

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