(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 8, 2010. Your questions and comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
As a youngster, I had a booklet on fall foliage and it left me with the impression that there was no fall color to be seen outside of the northeastern United States. Thus, I had no trouble believing my co-worker, though I eventually found out that he and my childhood impression were both wrong. We have fall color here, though I admit that it is not knock-your-socks-off New England color.
There are several reasons why the fall color in the southwest* is not as spectacular as in places like New England.
- The leaves of all species do not all turn color at the same time. Color change is very spread out, from October to December and sometimes into January. This lessens the visual impact.
- Lack of a cold snap in most regions can result in duller colors. Color changes in leaves are triggered mainly by decreasing daylight, though cooler weather can make colors brighter or better synchronize color change.
- Classic species like sugar maple and red oak are missing from the landscape here. They do not do well in hot, dry climates with alkaline soil and are not recommended for growing here.
- We do not have vast deciduous forests. The natural forests consist mainly of conifers. The lower elevation woodlands often consist mainly of evergreen oaks. The chaparral is evergreen. Most deciduous trees are found in small patches in the forest or in narrow bands along creeks and rivers.
- A huge variety of landscaping trees are available and various broadleaf evergreens, palms, and pines are popular, leaving less space for deciduous trees.
California sycamores near Malibu
However, let's now focus on what we do have. Most of the southwestern native deciduous plants exhibit a pleasing color change. Sycamores (California sycamore, Platanus racemosa) turn dark orange. Cottonwoods (western cottonwood, Populus fremontii), ashes (Arizona ash, Fraxinus velutina), and black oak (Quercus kelloggii) turn yellow. Quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) turn mountain landslide scars a very bright yellow. Willows (arroyo willow, Salix lasiolepis) and walnuts (Southern California black walnut, Juglans californica) seem to lose their leave gradually, but they add a touch of yellow as they go. Valley oaks (Quercus lobata)are even more subtle. They just turn brown, but when backlit by the sun, they have a golden tint. Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) tries to make up for its faults by turning a beautiful red.
Quaking aspens, Mount Charleston, Nevada
Cottonwoods near Superior, Arizona
Many ornamental deciduous trees are available and suitable for the warmer winter areas of the southwest. Those that I have seen perform well in the Los Angeles area include:
- Sweet gum, Liquidambar styraciflua - this would be my choice for red color;
- Crepe myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica - these provide year-round interest, with summer flowers, orange to red fall foliage, and interesting branch structure and bark for the winter;
- Ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba - yellow foliage;
- Tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera - yellow foliage;
- Ornamental pear, Pyrus calleryana cultivars - red foliage.
Persian ironwood, Parrotia persica, Los Angeles area
Other trees recommended for fall color in many southwestern climate zones include eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), western redbud (Cercis occidentalis), yellowwood (Cladrastis lutea), honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), Chinese flame tree (Koelreuteria bipinnata), tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), Chinese tallow tree (Triadica sebifera), Japanese snowdrop tree (Styrax japonicus), and sawleaf zelkova (Zelkova serrata).
I have two vines that provide good color, Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and wisteria. First let me say that many people find Virginia creeper to be very invasive. I suspect that they live in a wetter climate than I do. I do not have a problem with mine in that regard, but consider yourself forewarned. Virginia creeper is the first of my plants to turn color, usually starting in late September, and it is a striking red. Wisteria is a vigorous plant that will get very large but is nice if you have the space. Of course the flowers are wonderful, but the yellow fall foliage is pleasant. Mine usually reaches its peak of color between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Grape vines are also recommended for fall color.
When choosing a plant be sure to check with the PlantFiles, the Sunset Western Garden Book, fellow gardeners, or any other reputable source to make sure that the plant is suitable for your climate and space. If the quality of the fall color is of primary concern, when possible and practical, view the plants in their fall color state before purchasing them. There can be variations in color even among plants of the same cultivar.
Where can a southwestern resident see fall foliage? Just look around. The photos in the article were taken at Fort Selden, New Mexico; Santa Monica Mountains, California; Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Nevada; Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Arizona; the Los Angeles County Arboretum; and my backyard. They show merely the tiniest sample of the diversity of the southwest. You don't need to go to natural areas or botanic gardens to see fall foliage. You will see colorful trees in residential neighborhoods, landscaped industrial parks, and along highways. The time to look will depend on your latitude and altitude, so only you can determine the time, but start looking in October or even late September. The photos shown were taken from late September to early January. The peak of the season will also vary from place to place. In may area, it seems to be around the first week of December. In other words, be prepared to see fall foliage outside of the traditional October autumn period.
Yes, New England has arguably the best fall foliage displays, but the displays are not limited to New England. Perhaps no one will ever write an ode to autumn in New Spain, but the color is there for those who will look for it.
*In this article, the southwest includes the area from El Paso to the Pacific coast and from the Mexican border to central Nevada.