As if adjusting to the colder temperatures, windy conditions, and sudden storms isn't enough, fall also sees the demise of many plants and lots of foliage decay. The whole thing is slightly depressing, but one of the best ways to cheer up is to take a walk or drive where the seasonal color is radiant.

Bringing these seasonal tones into your landscape can also buoy you and any passersby with grin producing gold, scarlet, rust, burgundy, and more vivid hues. Although the color show is brief, planting specimens with definite seasonal changes that occur at different times of the fall will extend and enhance the total effect.

Why Leaves Change Colors

Leaves change color in fall as part of senescence. This is a process the plant undergoes to get ready for winter. The leaf colors plants display in autumn are actually there all year but show up in fall due to diminished warmth and sunlight, which reduces chlorophyll. While preparing to drop leaves to reduce respiration and winter damage, plants also reduce production of chlorophyll, the substance that makes leaves green, and store nitrogen in roots.

The fact that the tree is just trying to protect itself is interesting, but the amazing thing for us is the palette in which it achieves its goals. We can use that palette to our advantage to create a painting of intense color in our landscapes.

Reliable Fall Beauty Through Trees

sassafrass leaves

One of the best known species for seasonal color is the maple. There are many varieties, and each produces a distinct color show. However, maples aren't the only performers on this stage. Trees like gingko blaze showcase rich yellow tones, and burning bush euonymous turns hot pink like a flamingo. Other possible subjects for permanent autumn displays might be katsura, witch hazel, redbud, sourwood, sassafrass, aspen, or sweetgum.

Placing plants that turn amazing colors in fall in your landscape turns a ho hum pre-winter garden into a thing of stunning beauty. Select species that are hardy in your zone, and select natives whenever possible. The natural beauty of your local forests can give you a cue as to which plants feature the tones you want and which plants will thrive in your area.

Seasonal Color with Shrubs


You can bring fall into your garden with both trees and shrubs. Shrubs offer easy maintenance due to their short stature, but they can be some of the biggest stars of the autumn display.

Sumac is a common plant that comes in several cultivars. Each has unique fall color that ranges from maroon to golden yellow with pink stems. Fothergilla is known for its scented blooms, and if planted in full sun, it rewards yet again with scarlet foliage in October. Common witch hazel develops yellow edged with orange leaves, while oakleaf hydrangea leaves melt from orange to deeply pinkish red. Golden spicebush, pink highbush blueberry, and maroon Virginia sweetspire are easy to grow colorful fall choices, while smokebush may achieve every color of a sunset all at once on the plant. Red twig dogwood may be a bit of a disappointment with leaf color, but once the foliage has dropped, the brilliant scarlet-orange stems provide a stark but beautiful contrast from the natural landscape.

Double Down with Both Foliage and Fruit Interest

fall foliage with berries

If you want to double your color displays, choose plants that have both foliar color and berries. The berries often attract birds, which is fun to watch, but some of their hues out-compete the brilliant leaf displays.

Viburnum is a knock out for fall color. It's leaves turn rich pinks and reds while the pink and blue berries persist as long as animals leave them alone. Pyracantha leaves turn rich golds and oranges with bright red glossy berries. Nandina or heavenly bamboo is evergreen, but its leaves take on russet tones among the green and the plants produce clusters of red berries. Coralberry, beautyberry, and cotoneaster are a few other specimens with fall foliage and colorful berries.

Other fall fruiting plants can add more interest. Pomegranate fruits cling to wintry stems as the foliage turns golden and falls away. Persimmon is another plant with persistent orange fruits and greenish gold fading leaves.

Vertical Appeal with Vines

virginia creeper vines

Climbing plants bring seasonal color up the side of the house, ambling over a trellis or leaning against an old barn.

Virginia creeper is a well-known climbing plant with fiery red fall foliage and red berries in autumn. Porcelain berry has variegated leaves that simply turn gold to brown and fall off, but the berries range in tones from blue to bottle green and pink all on the same plant. Purple leaf grape is fairly self explanatory regarding leaf color, but it also produces blue-black grapes. American bittersweet has deeply yellow fall foliage and orange berries, while Boston ivy is a blaze of reddish purple. Climbing hydrangea needs a little help staying vertical, but the attractive leaves turn golden, orange, and purplish red in fall. Even hardy kiwis get in on the color display with clinging chubby, fuzzy fruits and leaves that turn autumn hues.

Developing an autumn-colored garden may take some time and planning, but in the end, you can have a swath of glorious hues across your landscape during a time where much of our traditional color is finished. By adding in plants with persistent fruits, you can extend the period of display, making fall a glorious celebration of life.

Best Places in the U.S. to See Fall Foliage