Plant Trees for Great Fall Colors

Here in Northeast Kansas, we think highly of our beautiful fall colors. While we certainly are not New England, there have been hundreds of sugar maples planted throughout the area, giving us a name for quality fall color in the Great Plains. Hiawatha, KS is known as the “City of Beautiful Maples” for this reason. But what other trees should we plant to have great fall colors? And what makes the leaves change color?

When the weather begins to change in September and October, chlorophyll production in the leaves of trees and shrubs begins to slow down. As the day length shortens and we begin to have cool nighttime temperatures and some frosts, chlorophyll production stops all together. The chlorophyll then breaks down and is absorbed by the plant to be stored for next year’s production of chlorophyll. An abscission layer develops between the twigs and the leaf petiole where it attaches to the twig. Chemicals such as caretenoids and anthocyanins are left in the leaves. These compound chemicals are what gives leaves there colors.

The more anthocyanins there are, the more reds and purples there are in the leaves. Caretenoids favor the development of oranges and yellows. Rainy and overcast days may be unpleasant for getting out and enjoying the cooler weather, but they also strengthen the color intensity. Having an early frost can result in weaker color development. 

Choosing trees just for fall color is not the best choice for your landscape. While it is certainly an important factor, other factors must be checked before buying any tree and planting in your landscape. Below is a chart of the best trees for fall color and their characteristics in the landscape, Use this guide to determine the best tree for your landscape and for fall color.



Tree Scientific Name Fall Color Type Size H x W Cultivars
Sugar Maple Acer saccharum Red, Yellow, Orange Shade 60 x 40 Oregon Trail, Legacy, Caddo
Dogwood Cornus florida Red, Purple Ornamental 25 x 15 Venus
Pin oak Quercus palustris Red Shade 100 x 60  
Scarlet Oak Quercus coccinea Red Shade 70 x 50  KC Infraray Red
Black Oak Quercus velutina Red Shade 70 x 50  
Serviceberry Amelanchier sp. Red, Orange Ornamental 30 x 30  Autumn Brilliance
Black Gum Nyssa sylvatica Red, Orange Shade 60 x 40  
Sourwood Oxydendrum arboreum Red, Purple Ornamental 40 x 25  
Black Cherry Prunus serotina Red, Orange Shade 60 x 40  
Chinkapin Oak Quercus muhlenbergii Red Shade 60 x 60  
Sassafrass Sassafras albidum Red, Orange Ornamental 40 x 20  
Zelkova Zelkova serrata Red, Orange Ornamental 40 x 40  
Hybrid Maple Acer x freemanii Red, Orange Shade 50 x 50 Matador
Sweet Gum Liquidambar styraciflua Purple, Red, Orange Shade 80 x 40  
Crabapple Malus sp. Red, Orange, Purple Ornamental 35 x 35  Royal Raindrops, Prairie Fire
Ginkgo Ginkgo biloba Yellow Shade 100 x 80  Autumn Gold
Silver Maple Acer saccharinum Yellow Shade 80 x 60  
River Birch Betula nigra Yellow Shade 60 x 40 Heritage
Tuliptree Liriodendron tulipifera Yellow Shade 120 x 60  
Ironwood Ostrya virginiana Yellow, Orange Ornamental 30 x 30  
Cottonwood Populus deltoides Yellow Shade 100 x 60  
Linden Tilia americana Yellow Shade 80 x 60  
Baldcypress Taxodium distichum Orange, Brown Shade 100 x 60  
Japanese Maple Acer palmatum Red, Orange, Yellow Ornamental 25 x 25  Orangeola
Mountain Ash Sorbus americana Orange Ornamental 40 x 40  





Happy planting!

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