Blazing Garden Plants For Autumn Glory

As the season grows cooler, the old flower heads of tall sedums darken. (Image by Jessie Keith)

In the fall, many plants begin to wither and fade away quietly from the garden.  Some pass so gently into dormancy that we often don’t notice their departures. Happily, there are other high-spirited exceptions that refuse to exit meekly. Instead, they fire up their flowers, fruits, and foliage to keep the garden showy late into the year. These individuals—perennials, shrubs, and trees–wait until the end of the growing season to put on flamboyant autumn displays, going into winter in a blaze of glory.

Colorful Garden Plants for Autumn


Fine-leaved Hubricht’s bluestar has beautiful fall color. (Image by Jessie Keith)

The bushy eastern bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana, USDA Hardiness Zones 4-9) and fine-leaved Hubricht’s bluestar (T. hubrichtii, Zones 5-9) are quiet individuals in the spring and summer garden. They produce spring flowers of the gentlest blue and feathery mounds of summer foliage in an unobtrusive Garden-of-Eden green. Then, one fine autumn day these retiring beauties undergo a stunning metamorphosis.  Suddenly, bluestar’s green foliage radiates a dazzling, show-stopping golden orange. There is a miniature, spreading, fine-leaved form, called ‘Georgia Pancake(Amsonia ciliata var. filifolia ‘Georgia Pancake’, Zones 4-9) that reaches only about 6 inches tall and spreads to 2 feet wide and is equally attractive in fall.

Deer resistant bluestars grow to a bushy 3 feet tall by 4 feet wide when grown in average soil and full to partial sun.  At planting time give them a boost by amending their soil with Black Gold Garden Soil, which has a little added fertilizer to get plants off to a great start.

Tall Sedum

Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ is a perennial fall favorite.

In spring, perennial Autumn Joy sedum (Sedum telephium ‘Autumn Joy’, zones 3-8) becomes a neat, round, 18-inch mound of succulent, pale green leaves.  In mid to late summer, stems of domed, pink flower heads cover the clump and are bee and butterfly magnets. As the season progresses, the color of the aging flowerheads deepen until in late fall when they radiate deep rose-red.  After frost, the flowers turn rich copper. Another exceptional tall sedum is the knock-your-socks-off ‘Mr. Goodbud‘ (Sedum telephium ‘Mr. Goodbud’, zones 4-9), an award-winner that is slightly shorter and has brilliant domed flower heads of purplish-pink.

Tall sedums prefer full sun. As long as their soil is well-drained and holds average moisture, they will grow well.

Little Bluestem

Little bluestem Blue Heaven™ turns brilliant shades in fall. (Image by Proven Winners)

Sun-loving little bluestem Blue Heaven™ (Schizachyrium scoparium Blue Heaven ‘MinnblueA’, zones 3-9) grows into an upright, 2-4-foot clump with soft gray blades that are streaked with sky blue and tipped with dusty purple. This well-behaved grass maintains its discrete coloring until the days begin to shorten. Then, its quiet hues flame a fiery burgundy-red that turn orange-brown as they dry.

Blue Heaven little bluestem prefers full sun and grows best in average, well-drained soil. In the heat of summer, it will take drought.

American Beautyberry

Beautyberry tree or American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) transition of unripe green to ripe purple or Beautyberry Shrub with Purple berries

Our native (Callicarpa americana, zones 6-9) is a fast-growing shrub that reaches 3-6 feet tall and wide.  Its shy, lavender or white summer flowers usually go unnoticed.  It isn’t until autumn that this native lives up to its name. It becomes a showy beauty when the insignificant flowers ripen into glowing purple berries that encircle the stems like jeweled bracelets. A bird favorite, beautyberry shows its finest when grown in full sun to partial shade and moister garden soil amended with Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss. As long as its berries are not snapped up by birds, they remain attractive until early winter.

Staghorn Sumac

Sumac Tiger Eyes turns brilliant shades in fall.

Sumac Tiger Eyes (Rhus typhina Tiger Eyes® ‘Bailtiger’, zones 4-8) never suffers a dull day during the growing season.  In spring, finely cut, bright golden-yellow leaves stand against the pink stems of this shrub and make it a colorful standout from the moment its leaves first emerge. It stays colorful into summer, though the leaves may revert to green. Then, in fall, the foliage of Tiger Eyes® converts to riveting oranges and scarlets, putting on a display that is an extravaganza of dazzling, brilliant color. It may also produce spires of deep reddish-orange fruits that will stay attractive into winter.

This fast-growing North American small tree quickly reaches 4-6 feet tall and wide in full to partial sun. It is drought-resistant and tolerates poorer soils but still appreciates a soil amendment, like peat moss, at planting time.


Sweetspire turns shades of purple, orange, yellow, and red in fall. (Image by SB_Johnny)

Little Henry dwarf sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’, zones 5-9) is a great all-purpose shrub that thrives in the sun or shade and looks fine massed in a border or as a foundation plant. It can even naturalize in a woodland.  This petite, 3-4-foot-tall shrub tolerates periods of drought as well as moist soil.

Drooping, elongated clusters of fragrant, ivory flowers blanket the plant in early summer, attracting hordes of butterflies.  The clean, shiny, green foliage is free from serious disease and insect problems and unappealing to deer. In fall, Little Henry’s shiny green leaves turn shades of flamboyant orange before deepening to glowing garnet-red. Its color is most vibrant when the shrubs are grown in sunnier locations.

Spectacular garden plants that look good through summer, but also to put on vivid displays in fall, are doubly cherished.  They extend a garden’s showy season by going out in a blaze of glory.

Sweetgum for Fall Sunset Color Out West

“Red oaks are supposed to turn red in the fall, not brown.” People always ask why their eastern tree colors turn dull and crispy by Thanksgiving in California. “Are you sure you planted the same species I requested?”

I’ve repeated this mistake way too many times to newcomers to the state. When grown in regions with warmer, more arid climates, the chemical process that results in fall leaf color isn’t there for red oaks, pin oaks, maples, and other eastern and northern hardwoods. (Click here to read more about the cause of fall leaf color.)

Eastern Trees in Southwestern Autumns

These columnar sweetgums show the tree’s color range, from dark red and purple to pink and yellow. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Fall color in these trees is incredibly iffy in California, where resources are less bountiful, and autumn temperatures do not drop at night like they do in the north and east. Where native, the leaves of these hardwoods accrue lots of colorful pigments and they die rather than slowly, declining over a long period in fall to show maximum color once their green chlorophyll is gone. That’s why I recommend one reliable eastern hardwood species to my California clients who miss the autumn color change from back east.

Sweetgum For Fall Color

Some varieties, like ‘Moraine’, have the perfect dark red to a burgundy color range.

I can always count on American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) for fantastic color. It’s a native of the American east with a potential four-century life span and height reaching up to 130 feet. I’ve seen them deep in the northern Louisiana bayous proving their tolerance for poorly drained clay soils as well as dry ones. The tree bears amber-like resin which led to the genus name Liquidambar, which means liquid amber. The dried resin (or sweetgum) was sweet enough to be popular chewing gum for Native Americans and settlers alike.

Sweetgum is the only tree I know for a guaranteed rainbow of reliable fall colors along the mild southern California coast and further inland where winter has shorter days and is a few degrees cooler than summer. So, no matter where planted, American sweetgum will perform.

Sweetgums product lots of brown prickly fruits.

Fall also brings a wealth of prickly, brown sweetgum fruits, which are easily collected and often self-sow. Sweetgums grown from seed yield a great range of color variability. The hues of its palm-shaped leaves can range from vivid magenta to red, orange, canary yellow, burgundy, and dark purple. Among seed-grown trees, each individual displays its colors irregularly, with some darker, others lighter, and a few simply dull. This is why buying or selecting unlabeled or unnamed sweetgum saplings is best done in the fall to see their color.

Over the years growers selected the very brightest seedlings of their seed-grown trees. These were grown separately to study that individual’s color over time to ensure reliable color. Will that color be stable each year?  If so, propagating that tree by cuttings would yield identical clones with guaranteed color every year.

Sweetgum Varieties

A fall colored driveway is indeed possible in California. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

When a new variety is vetted and approved, which takes decades, it’s propagated and given a cultivar and/or trade name. One of the most popular is the narrow ‘Festival’ (20 feet x 60 feet), which is an excellent choice for smaller residential landscapes. Its columnar form fits into tight spaces between buildings. Line several up along a driveway for a stunning entry experience in the fall. This clone offers a virtual rainbow of warm colors that are so powerful they create a focal point for any late-season garden. ‘Festival’ turns super bright yellow, orange, and red in the fall with a few smoky tones and purples. Bear in mind that it is slightly less cold hardy than the species, surviving to USDA Hardiness Zone 7.

For those looking for stronger reds specifically, consider the fast-growing ‘Moraine’ (Zones 5-8), which is recorded to take slightly more cold than ‘Festival’. It has the perfect dark red to a burgundy color range that makes it a fine alternative to that red oak. Keep in mind that Moraine’s canopy has a more spreading, pyramidal form, which makes it a better shade tree. Plant it as a single specimen tree or in a grove to intensify your yard’s fall color mass.

One of the best for the Pacific Coast is  ‘Palo Alto’ (Zones 6-9), a good clone renowned for powerful bright reds. It is a well-shaped pyramidal tree that’s ideal for groves and makes a nice companion to coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) and Deodar cedars (Cedrus deodara).

If you do not like the messy fruit of sweetgum, consider the low to no fruiting ‘Rotundiloba’, which has rounded leaves with pretty but highly variable fall color.

Before you take a chance on an unproven tree for fall color, take a good look at sweetgums this fall when they bear their prettiest dresses. Purchase what pleases your eye, then plant with generous amounts of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend to improve water penetration before the winter rains for flawless performance over the next 400 years. (Click here for a complete how-to guide for tree planting.)

Trees and Shrubs for Fall and Winter Color

Oxydendrum arboreum (sourwood) is often overlooked but deserves to be seen in more gardens. (photo by Jessie Keith)

Warm and sunny fall days have continued here in the Pacific Northwest through mid November. They have given gardeners time to trim summer perennials, transplant all those plants that were planted in the wrong location, plant bulbs, dig and protect tender plants and finish general garden cleanup. The mild weather has also allowed us to enjoy plants that provide fall color, whether via flower, fruit, berry, bark, foliage or a combination of these. I still have dahlias blooming in my garden, and while the plants are not at their best, they are still providing enough flowers for bouquets.

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