Yard and Garden: Colorful Fall Foliage

AMES, Iowa — There are many things such as temperature, moisture, rain, wind and the availability of sunlight that impact the quality of fall color – but having the right trees, shrubs, vines and perennials will add to colors in the home landscape each fall. Horticulturists with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach point out types of trees and plants that have colorful fall foliage. To have additional questions answered, contact the Hortline at hortline@iastate.edu or call 515-294-3108.

Which shade trees have colorful fall foliage? 

Shade trees that possess excellent fall foliage include Freeman maple (Acer x freemanii), Norway maple (Acer platanoides), red maple (Acer rubrum), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), white oak (Quercus alba), red oak (Quercus rubra) and black gum (Nyssa sylvatica). Freeman maples are hybrids of red and silver maples. Their leaves vary from orange to red in fall. Widely sold Freeman maples include Celebration®, Autumn Blaze® and Sienna Glen®. Easy Street™, ‘Emerald Queen’ and Parkway® are Norway maple cultivars with yellow fall foliage. The red maple cultivars Red Sunset® and Redpointe™ have dark red foliage in fall.

Sugar maples are native to eastern Iowa. Their fall foliage varies from yellow to orange to reddish orange. ‘Commemoration,’ ‘Legacy’ and Fall Fiesta™ are excellent sugar maple cultivars.

In fall, the foliage of white oaks is often reddish brown, while red oaks have wine red foliage. Black gums are not widely grown in Iowa. They are somewhat difficult to transplant and prefer moist, well-drained, acidic soils (pH 6.0 to 6.5). However, the black gum possesses outstanding fall foliage. Its foliage is often bright red in fall. Other possibilities include ‘Moraine’ sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Moraine’) with foliage that varies from yellow to red to purple, yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea) with yellow fall foliage and ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) cultivars ‘Autumn Gold’ and ‘The President’ with golden yellow fall color. 

Which shrubs have colorful foliage in fall? 

Several deciduous shrubs have colorful fall foliage. The winged euonymus or burning bush (Euonymus alatus) has red foliage in fall. The fall foliage of fothergilla (Fothergilla spp.) varies from yellow to orange to red. Common witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) has yellow leaves in fall. In autumn, the foliage of Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) varies from yellow to orange to reddish purple. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) and blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) have yellow, red and reddish purple foliage respectively. 

Are there any perennials with attractive fall foliage? 

big blue stem

Most perennials are grown for their colorful flowers. However, several perennials have attractive fall foliage.

Perennials with yellow foliage in fall include blue star (Amsonia spp.), balloon flower (Platycodon spp.), hosta (Hosta spp.) and monkshood (Aconitum spp.). The sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) and royal fern (Osmunda regalis) also develop yellow fall color. The foliage of pigsqueak (Bergenia cordifolia) often turns burgundy red in fall. The foliage of many hardy geraniums (Geranium spp.) is yellow, orange, red or purple in autumn.

Several ornamental grasses also have striking fall color. Switchgrass (Panicum spp.) cultivars with colorful fall foliage include ‘Rehbraun’ (reddish brown), ‘Rotstrahlbusch’ (burgundy red) and ‘Prairie Fire’ (wine red). In fall, Miscanthus cultivars ‘Purpurascens’ and ‘November Sunset’ have orange-red and golden orange foliage respectively. Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) has yellow to burnt orange fall color. Big bluestem cultivar ‘Blaze’ has orange to reddish purple fall color, while ‘Blue Heaven’ develops a burgundy red color in autumn.

Are there vines with colorful fall foliage? 

Vines for fall color include Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) and American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens). Virginia creeper is native to Iowa. It’s palmately compound leaves turn purple-red to crimson red in fall. The autumn foliage on Boston ivy varies from yellow to orange to red. Virginia creeper and Boston ivy are woody vines that climb objects via adhesive-tipped tendrils. American bittersweet is also native to Iowa. It’s leaves turn yellow in fall. Female plants also possess attractive reddish orange fruit clusters in fall. American bittersweet is a twining woody vine.