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Native Trees for Fall Color

By Marie Harrison (can2growSeptember 12, 2011

Residents of the Deep South are resigned to the fact that they will never see fall color that equals that of the central and northern sections of the country. Nevertheless, with careful selection, southerners can select trees and shrubs that will fill their gardens and neighborhoods with colorful fall foliage. The native trees in this article offer a few colorful choices.

Gardening picture

ImageBlack Gum

The black gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica) is easily spotted from a distance. The lower half of the canopy features branches that extend at right angles from the trunk. A few red leaves can be seen by mid summer, and as autumn approaches, more and more of the leaves turn red. Because of the early leaf coloration, the black gum has been called the "harbinger of autumn."

The black gum is one of our most beautiful native trees. Selected as the 2008 Urban Tree of the Year by the Society of Municipal Arborists, it can be grown over much of the United States within Zones 4-9. Growth is slow to medium, and trees eventually attain a height of 30 to 50 feet tall.

The black gum bears leathery dark green, smooth-margined leaves that taper at each end. Green berries gradually turn dark blue as they mature in fall and provide fruit for several birds and mammals. Copious nectar from the flowers attracts many pollinators. Fall color is notable but variable. Leaves are sometimes brilliant yellow to orange, but often they are bright red.

The black gum prefers full sun or partial shade and deep, moist acidic soil but tolerates a wide range of soil textures. It is tolerant of both wet soils and drought conditions. A long tap root anchors this tree firmly to the ground, and a straight trunk and wide-angled branches form a strong framework that is resistant to storm damage.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)

ImageFew can mistake the distinctively shaped sassafras leaves which may be entire with no lobes, two-lobed and mitten shaped, or three-lobed. Hardy from Zones 4-9, it can be found in open, dry woods, along fence rows and in disturbed areas such as abandoned fields. Growing from 30 to 60 feet tall, this tree is important, especially to wildlife and butterfly gardeners.

Sassafras appreciates a place in full sun or partial shade and prefers moist, well-drained acidic soil. However, it is tolerant of dry, rocky or sandy sites. Wildlife enthusiasts include sassafras in their gardens for the fruit that is eaten by birds and other wildlife and for its value as a host plant for spicebush and palamedes swallowtail butterfly larvae. Flowers attract honeybees and other insects.

Although the essential oils have been used for many purposes including seasoning in Cajun cooking and a flavoring for root beer, it is no longer recommended for human consumption because parts of the plant have carcinogenic properties. Oh, well, there goes Grandmother's sassafras tea!

Sassafras is a standout in landscapes and natural areas during the fall with its peach to light-orange foliage. Most admirers can recognize it by color alone, for nothing else is quite like it. Sassafras tends to colonize the area where it is planted, so be sure to site it where this tendency will not pose a problem.

ImageTurkey Oak

The turkey oak (Quercus laevis), so called because of its 3-lobed leaves which resemble a turkey's foot, is a small tree endemic to the sandy soils and dry pinelands of the southeastern coastal areas of the United States from Virginia and sweeping around through the Carolinas all the way down to central Florida and west to southeast Louisiana. Sometimes called scrub oak, the average tree grows an average of 20-50 feet tall and is a major food source for black bear, white-tailed deer, northern bobwhite, and wild turkey.

In fall turkey oak leaves turn bright red to burgundy and often persist into the early winter. They provide brilliant spots of color in the xeric soils of the coastal plains.


Some of the Deep South's most dependable color comes from the hickory trees that dot the landscape in Zones 5-9. The pignut hickory (Carya glabra) is dependably golden yellow in fall and is a standout when it reaches its mature height of 50 to 65 feet or more. A deep root system, a single strong leader with well-spaced branches, and limbs held at wide angles from the trunk make it strong and resistant to damage during high wind events.

The strong wood of hickory is used for chair legs, tool handles such as for axes and hammers that require strength and durability, and it is a favorite wood to throw on the grill when smoking meat and fish.  Country folk love to find a hickory tree to cut for firewood, for it burns long and hot. All parts of the tree, including the nuts, flowers, leaves, and bark provide food for wildlife such as black bears, foxes, rabbits, squirrels, wild turkey, eastern chipmunks, deer, and other mammals.

These native trees are suited for landscapes in the Deep South and beyond. While we may suffer a bit of zone envy in the fall and plan a trip "up north" to see the sugar maples and such, our gardens need not be void of fall color. Careful selection of some of our best and most long-lived native trees will provide it in abundance.

Images used with great appreciation from Dave's Garden Website include:

Sweetgum by Frostweed

Blackgum by Growin

Sassafras by Melody

Thanks, folks! 

  About Marie Harrison  
Marie HarrisonServing as a Master Flower Show Judge, a Floral Design Instructor, instructor of horticulture for National Garden Clubs, and a University of Florida Master Gardener immerses me in gardening/teaching activities. In addition to these activities, I contribute regularly to Florida Gardening magazine and other publications. I am author of four gardening books, all published by Pineapple Press, Sarasota, Florida. Read about them and visit me at

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