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.



TreeScientific NameFall ColorTypeSize H x WCultivars
Sugar MapleAcer saccharumRed, Yellow, OrangeShade60 x 40Oregon Trail, Legacy, Caddo
DogwoodCornus floridaRed, PurpleOrnamental25 x 15Venus
Pin oakQuercus palustrisRedShade100 x 60 
Scarlet OakQuercus coccineaRedShade70 x 50 KC Infraray Red
Black OakQuercus velutinaRedShade70 x 50 
ServiceberryAmelanchier sp.Red, OrangeOrnamental30 x 30 Autumn Brilliance
Black GumNyssa sylvaticaRed, OrangeShade60 x 40 
SourwoodOxydendrum arboreumRed, PurpleOrnamental40 x 25 
Black CherryPrunus serotinaRed, OrangeShade60 x 40 
Chinkapin OakQuercus muhlenbergiiRedShade60 x 60 
SassafrassSassafras albidumRed, OrangeOrnamental40 x 20 
ZelkovaZelkova serrataRed, OrangeOrnamental40 x 40 
Hybrid MapleAcer x freemaniiRed, OrangeShade50 x 50Matador
Sweet GumLiquidambar styracifluaPurple, Red, OrangeShade80 x 40 
CrabappleMalus sp.Red, Orange, PurpleOrnamental35 x 35 Royal Raindrops, Prairie Fire
GinkgoGinkgo bilobaYellowShade100 x 80 Autumn Gold
Silver MapleAcer saccharinumYellowShade80 x 60 
River BirchBetula nigraYellowShade60 x 40Heritage
TuliptreeLiriodendron tulipiferaYellowShade120 x 60 
IronwoodOstrya virginianaYellow, OrangeOrnamental30 x 30 
CottonwoodPopulus deltoidesYellowShade100 x 60 
LindenTilia americanaYellowShade80 x 60 
BaldcypressTaxodium distichumOrange, BrownShade100 x 60 
Japanese MapleAcer palmatumRed, Orange, YellowOrnamental25 x 25 Orangeola
Mountain AshSorbus americanaOrangeOrnamental40 x 40 





Happy planting!

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