Yard and Garden: Enjoy Fall Colors of These Iowa Trees, Shrubs, Perennials

October 12, 2017, 8:05 am | Richard Jauron, Greg Wallace

AMES, Iowa – October is the perfect time to enjoy fall foliage in Iowa. Depending on the location in the state, foliage and fall colors peak from now through the end of the month. Which trees have the best colors? Which shrubs and perennials are best to look at this month?

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach horticulturists can help answer questions about fall foliage and the best ways to enjoy it. 

Which trees have colorful fall foliage?

Fall Trees

Shade trees that possess excellent fall foliage include Freeman maple (Acer x freemanii), red maple (Acer rubrum), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), black maple (Acer nigrum), 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. 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.

Black maples are similar in appearance to sugar maples, but are more heat and drought tolerant. The leaves of black maples turn yellow to orange in fall. 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. 
Small trees with colorful fall foliage include serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora), American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) and redbud (Cercis canadensis). The fall foliage of serviceberry and American hornbeam varies from yellow to orange to red, while redbud leaves turn yellow in fall.

Which shrubs have colorful fall foliage?

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. 

Do any perennials have colorful fall foliage?

Most perennials are grown for their attractive flowers.  However, several perennials have colorful 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. The little bluestem cultivar ‘Blaze’ has orange to reddish purple fall color, while ‘Blue Heaven’ develops a burgundy red color in autumn. 

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