Paint the sky with bright foliage colors

When choosing trees, garden designers should consider fall hues available

In The Garden

September 26, 2004|By Nancy Taylor Robson | By Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Mother Nature is smart. She knows how to keep our spirits up even when the nights are closing in. Just as the colors fade from the garden, she cranks up the volume on the trees. First the dogwoods (Cornus) begin to tinge crimson. Then the maples (Acer) glow peach and tangerine, as though washed in sunset. Then practically overnight, the Ginkgoes (Ginkgo biloba) switch from kelly green to flawless saffron.

"Ginkgo's awesome," says Rob Ditmars, manager of Tuckahoe Nursery in Centreville. "The color is electric."

A tree's colorful fall foliage can act as a foil for evergreens, a gorgeous seasonal standout like a new actor taking center stage, or even as a neighborhood beacon.

"Crape myrtle 'Natchez' [Lagerstroemia Natchez] is usually yellow-orange and really lights up a landscape," says Gwen Craughwell, designer with Graham Landscape Architecture in Annapolis.

Yet, while fall leaf color is genetically programmed, its intensity varies from year to year with weather conditions.

"When anything gets stressed out on either side of the spectrum, like with drought or with too much rain, it won't show its fall color well," says Ditmars.

Heat and cold affect brilliance too.

"Warm sunny days with cool crisp nights favor formation of a chemical that enhances colors," says Laura Schweitzer, a forester with American Forests, a citizen action group in Washington, D.C. Early frost stalls the process and dims colors.

While not all deciduous trees turn vibrant colors in fall (many oaks fade to brown), the trees that do turn are deciduous. But not all deciduous foliage consists of leaves.

"Bald cypress [Taxodium distichum] has gold-green feathery deciduous needles that turn beautiful golden yellow, then rusty orange," says Sylvan Kaufman, conservation curator at Adkins Arboretum in Ridgely.

Needled or leafed, in every case, the colorful cast will put on its show, then exit. And what a show it is. Golden yellow Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) and Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) both glimmer like candlelight.

Native Hawthorn (Crataegus crusgalli) is a luminous peachy blush while Redbud (Cercis) 'Forest pansy' has a coppery russet sheen.

Gum trees offer a smorgasbord of color. American Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) runs through yellow and red to purple-burgundy depending on variety, while Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), aka Tupelo or Sour Gum, turns an eye-popping scarlet.

"Black gum is probably the reddest color you'd ever see," says Ditmars.

Colorful trees come in many shapes and sizes so there is a good range of design options.

For example, low-growing (10-15 feet tall) Chinese Witch Hazel (Hamamelis mollis) spreads darkly elegant limbs cloaked in mango-colored fall foliage, which makes a lovely specimen in a small yard.

Pears (Pyrus) are generally smallish (10-15 feet tall) and contained in habit. However, Bradford pear, despite its lush spring blooms, is short-lived, sheds branches, and is highly invasive in the environment. Two better choices are P. 'Chanticleer,' which has dark burgundy foliage in fall, and P. 'Aristocrat' whose leaves are the color of ripe pomegranates.

But it's maple (Acer) that has, as a species, long been considered thetree for fall color. In part it's because there is a painter's palate of varieties that present options for tint and hue as well as size and shape.

Trident maple (A. buergerianum) 25-23 feet tall, is yellow-tipped scarlet in fall. Hedge Maple (A. campestre) also large, is gold-dappled orange.

Paperbark Maple (A. griseum), 20-30 feet, is cardinal red, while A. japonicum 'Vitifolium' can reach 25 feet and looks from a distance like a huge ripe Georgia peach. And Maryland's native Red maple (A. rubrum) is fabulously red.

"It's also fast-growing and grows almost anywhere," says Kaufman.

"Amur Maple (A. ginnala) is now used as a street tree in Maryland,"says Ditmars. "It's got a beautiful tiny orange-red-burgundy mix leaf and a pretty high tolerance for urban environments."

The only (current) caveat with A. ginnala, as with many maples, is their tendency to scatter helicopter-like seeds that produce volunteer trees.

Choosing a Tree

First, as with any plant, consider the location. Do the soil, sun and moisture conditions suit the needs of the specific species and variety?

"Sweet gum can grow almost anywhere and Tupelo is an easy grower" says Sylvan Kaufman, "but Bald cypress prefers a wetter place."

Also, consider its growth habit. Stuffing a fast-growing, wide-spreading tree beside the house is a guaranteed maintenance problem.

"Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is a good tree closer to the house because it's slow-growing, upright, and narrow," says Gwen Craughwell.

Also, consider what fall colors really turn you on. Not every fall leaf color will suit every gardener.


River Hill Garden Center

12165 Clarksville Pike

Clarksville, MD 410-531-3303

Edrich Farms Nursery

9700 Old Court Rd.

Windsor Mill, MD 21244


Glyndon Gardens

205 Hanover Pike

Reisterstown, MD 21136


Homestead Gardens

743 W. Central Ave.

Davidsonville, MD



Stadler Nursery

6815 Olney-Laytonsville Rd.

Laytonsville, MD 20882


or 5504 Mt. Zion Rd.

Frederick, MD 21702


American Forests

P.O. Box 2000

Washington, D.C. 20013


Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.