When trees get dressed in fall colors, it’s time to go shopping.
“If you’re specifically interested in fall color, it will soon be the time to start looking,” says Neil Bell, a horticulturist with Oregon State University’s Extension Service. “There are already some trees starting to display color.”
First, though, Neil recommends doing some research. Walk around neighborhoods, parks and public gardens to get ideas. If you can’t identify the trees you like, snap good photos, pick up several leaves or ask the owner for a cutting. Take them to a nursery or local extension office for identification. You can also cut out pictures from magazines and flip through gardening books to find possibilities.
After filtering down your favorites, be absolutely sure about size, soil and
sun requirements. You don’t want to be stuck with a 60-foot tree where a 30-foot tree should be.
“The biggest problem people have,” Neil says, “is that a tree gets too large, and then they are forced to prune just to reduce the size of the tree, which can look horrible.”
Topping—or cutting off the tips of trees—is especially undesirable. The practice increases the possibility of disease and gives pests more access. Topping also encourages weaker growth and alters the shape.
Before buying, find out if the tree needs sun or some shade, and if it requires irrigation in summer.
Fall is an ideal time for planting. Soil is warmer than in spring, so roots get a good head start. The weather is cool so trees are under less stress. Rains will start soon and reduce the need for watering.
“All in all, fall is the perfect time to select and plant a tree,” Neil says. “Wait for the leaves to start changing color and go for it.”
What to Plant
Here are several of horticulturist Neil Bell’s recommendations for trees with excellent fall color:
- Red maple (Acer rubrum). Not much beats the vibrant scarlet color this maple displays in autumn. Make sure you have room for it, though; red maples grow quickly and eventually reach 60 feet tall and 25 to 35 feet wide. Hardy to Zone 4.
- Vine maple (Acer circinatum). Native to the Northwest, vine maple really comes into its own in fall when the foliage lights up in lively shades of red and orange. It is a useful small tree up to 15 feet that often grows with multiple trunks. It is not suitable for full sun. Hardy to Zone 6.
- Paperbark maple (Acer griseum). Unmistakable cinnamon-colored peeling bark and glowing orange-red fall color make this slow-growing, small tree (25 feet eventually) a much-loved specimen in any size garden. Prefers a partially shady exposure. Hardy to Zone 4.
- Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum).
The unmistakable heart-shaped leaves emerge purple in spring and seem to turn buttery yellow overnight in autumn. Falling leaves smell wonderfully like burnt sugar. The form is tall—
up to 60 feet—and rounded. Hardy to Zone 4.
- Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum).
A little-known but deserving tree that has the unusual feature of sending out long streamers of fragrant, white flowers in fall just as the foliage turns to heady shades of red, orange and purple. At 25 to 30 feet tall, sourwood fits nicely into a small garden. Hardy to Zone 5.
- ‘Eddie’s White Wonder’ dogwood (Cornus kousa). A spectacular cultivar of Korean dogwood that is blanketed in large, white star-shaped flowers in spring and strawberry red color in fall. Its 20-foot stature makes it ideal
for small spaces. Hardy to Zone 5.
- ‘Wild Fire’ black gum (Nyssa sylvatica). Glossy green leaves emerge a deep red in spring and end the season with a spectacular show of orange, yellow, scarlet and purple. Has a nice pyramidal shape and grows up to 20 feet. Hardy to Zone 6.