The bald cypress is one of very few deciduous conifers. Growing 50 to 75 feet tall, it has a slender, conical shape for many years but becomes more spreading and flat-topped as it matures. Feathery needles, sage green during the summer, turn copper in the fall and give significant color to woods and landscapes in much of southeastern North America (Zones 5 to 10). The long-lived trees grow best in acidic soils and appreciate full sun.
Easily recognized by its attractive exfoliating red-brown to silver bark and a slightly buttressed, swollen base, the bald cypress grows well on poorly drained sites where tapered knees develop that rise up to six feet above the ground. Round cones about an inch in diameter mature in late summer. Although trees grow well in wet areas, they are adaptable to drier sites and are suitable landscape trees in most situations. The strong, decay-resistant wood is used for construction of items that must endure wet or outdoor conditions, such as docks, boats, and outdoor fencing as well as beautiful interior paneling and trim.
One of the showiest trees in the fall is the sweetgum. Star-shaped, glossy leaves with five to seven lobes transform from summer's cloak of dark or medium green colors to glowing shades of orange, red, burgundy, and purple. Spiny clusters of "gumballs" hang in clusters from the branches to the delight of birds, squirrels, and other wildlife but to the chagrin of people walking or mowing underneath the trees.
Hardy to USDA Zone 5, the sweetgum usually grows from 60 to 80 feet tall and 40 to 60 feet wide, but it can exceed 100 feet tall. Young trees have an attractive pyramidal crown that becomes more rounded with age. Several cultivars increase the choices. ‘Grazam' grows to 50 feet tall while 'Gum Ball' and ‘Oconee' are dwarf and have a more shrubby habit. ‘Rotundiloba' has rounded leaves and produces few or no gumballs. One has been identified with a columnar, round growth habit, and some with variegated leaves round out the selections. Sweetgum is native to the eastern United States from Connecticut to Florida and mountainous regions of Mexico and Guatemala.
Although the dogwood is plagued with disease problems in parts of the country, it is still often selected for its beautiful form, the showy white spring bracts, colorful fall and winter fruit, and its bold red to purplish colors in the autumn landscape. Hardy in Zones 5-9, the dogwood grows from 20 to 30 feet tall and is best as an understory tree where its layered form is shown to greatest advantage.
Avoid planting dogwood in heavy shade, and be sure to choose a place with good air circulation to minimize the anthracnose and other diseases that plague the species. Enjoy the birds and squirrels that relish the bright red fruit, and look for spring azure butterflies that use the tree as a larval host. Choose from among various cultivars for pink, red, or white bracts, variegated foliage, and other specific characteristics.
One of the most widespread trees in eastern North America, the red maple is a study in color in spring and again in fall. In spring the small red (rarely yellow) flower clusters appear on slender stalks. Before the leaves fully expand, small, winged double samaras (fruits) develop. These fruits wing their way to the ground and are capable of germinating almost immediately. However, birds and squirrels claims their share before they all flutter to the ground, and seeds and foliage are important foods for deer, elk, and other wildlife.
During the summer, red maple leaves are dark green with lighter, silvery undersides that glitter in the slightest breeze. In fall, the leaves turn yellow, orange, or brilliant red. At home on wet sites but adaptable to dry places, the red maple has a shallow root system that can surface and cause problems in home landscapes. Cultivars such as 'October Glory' and ‘Red Sunset' have been selected for their outstanding fall color.
The sparkleberry (or farkleberry) is a good choice for landscapes in Zones 6 to 9. The picturesque small tree or large shrub (8 to 30 feet tall) blooms in spring with characteristic bell-shaped white blossoms similar to those of other blueberries. Small, glossy dark green leaves clothe the tree in summer and in fall turn a rich, purplish red. Although the berries are not tasty, they are attractive to birds and are a great addition to a wildlife garden.
Unique among the blueberries, the sparkleberry does not require acid soil but thrives on soils that range from calcareous to neutral to acid. Extreme drought tolerance makes it a favorite plant for areas where irrigation is not feasible. Plant sparkleberry for its contorted form, attractive exfoliliating reddish bark, abundant spring flowers, blueberry-like fruits, fall color, and many other attributes.
With appropriate selections, Southerners need not do without color in the fall landscape. Don't plan to cancel your annual fall pilgrimage to points north, however, for that spectacular scenery cannot be duplicated in the very Deep South. We do what we can, but it is what it is. Thanks to bootandall for the image of sweetgum leaves and fruit and to frostweed for red maple 'Autumn Glory'. All other images are the author's.