Peak leaf-peeping season is here! The forests are dressed in their finest autumn shades of red, orange, gold, and yellow, with some evergreens here and there for a bit of contrast. In the autumn garden, there are several trees and shrubs that turn shades of deep burgundy and purple, adding a velvety accent to the landscape. Mixing these purple-foliaged shrubs in with those that turn yellow can create a dramatic display before the leaves drop.
White Ash (Fraxinus americana), specifically the variety ‘Autumn Purple’, is large, round-crowned tree that turns all kinds of colors in the fall; red, orange, yellow, and as the name suggests, purple. The leaves are green through summer, and then go through the spectrum as they change in autumn, often starting yellow, and moving through deeper oranges and reds, finally turning purple before they fall. The variety of color on this one tree is an impressive display that ensures a different view every day!
The dwarf lilac ‘Miss Kim’ (Syringa chinensis) is a beautiful shrub in the late spring, covered with fragrant lavender flowers, beloved by bees, early hummingbirds, and butterflies. It then fades into the background during the summer, a dark green shrub, allowing perennials to shine. In autumn, however, the show rivals that of the spring bloom. The foliage turns a deep shade of purple to burgundy red, persisting well into October, providing a unique and emphasizing backdrop for fall blooming sedums and grasses.
Forsythia is another spring blooming shrub that is often overlooked in the fall. Bright yellow flowers give way to medium green leaves, which then turn shades of yellow or purple in the fall, depending on the variety. One of the best varieties for purple foliage is ‘Lynnwood Gold’, followed closely by ‘New Hampshire Gold’, and ‘Sunrise’. These varieties are also exceptionally hardy, ensuring beautiful blooms in spring, and always nice foliage through the rest of the year.
Not to be left out, evergreens often will change color in the fall as well. ‘PJM’ and other little-leaf Rhododendrons often turn purple to burgundy as the weather turns cool, and keep this color all through winter. The creeping ‘Bar Harbor’ juniper also acquires a purple tint, accenting the already beautiful silvery-blue foliage. A hillside covered in this juniper makes quite a dramatic statement in any season.
There are perennials and grasses with purple foliage as well; many varieties of Coral Bells (Heuchera), ‘Purple Emperor’ and ‘Postman’s Pride’ Sedum, and ‘Husker’s Red’ Penstemon are purple through the summer, and keep this color through the fall, until they are well ready to be cut back. ‘Ruby Ribbons’ Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum) is a lovely native grass, growing to about 4 feet tall, with purple-red tips all summer long. In autumn, the grass turns entirely purple, including the seedheads.
Purple in the garden, especially in the fall, is a very dramatic color. Be careful not to use too much of it, but in the right spot, a spot of deep foliage will be just the thing to draw the eye to a corner of the landscape.