Plant Profile: Flames of Fall

The full glory of autumn is here in the brilliant reds, oranges, and golds of foliage. Lawns are turning into crunchy carpets when ash and maples shed their leaves, giving way for lower shrubs to display their beautiful colors.

One of the most popular plants for brilliant red fall color is the burning bush, Euonymus alatus, a native of northeastern Asia that is quickly becoming a problem in the Northeast. In less urban areas, it tends to escape the garden and make its way into our native woods, out-competing our native plants. There is no need to plant this non-native, invasive shrub; there are many native and ‘friendly’ alternatives that will sport the same brilliant red fall color that everyone loves!

An excellent look-alike is our native Blackhaw Viburnum, Viburnum prunifolium. Often mistaken for the burning bush on first glance, this shrub grows approximately 12 feet tall and 8 feet wide, and is well suited to full sun or light shade culture. It is tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions, and can be very easily transplanted and is tolerant of late spring and early fall pruning (though this will affect the summer fruiting or following spring’s flowering). In addition to the beautiful red color in fall, the Blackhaw Viburnum has showy white flower clusters in spring, followed by pink to black fruits that mature in early fall. It is also an excellent plant for attracting birds!

A second native Viburnum that has multi-seasonal interest is the Raisinberry, or Possum-haw Viburnum. Viburnum nudum, and its cultivars including ‘Winterthur’, have a fall fruit and foliage display that is unrivaled by many. Glossy deep green summer foliage turns deep red to nearly purple, and holds onto the stems for a long time, providing many weeks of fall color. Creamy white flower clusters cover the plant in early spring, giving way to large clusters of green fruit that mature from pink to dark blue and persist well into winter, providing food for wildlife. The fruit display is fun to see, as the entire cluster does not mature at the same time, providing a multi-colored bunch of berries.

As with many fruiting plants, it is good to have a couple different varieties to cross-pollinate to get a better fruit set. Viburnum leaf beetle is occasionally a problem, but this pest can fortunately be controlled without the use of nasty chemicals. Horticultural oils and soaps are very effective in eliminating it before much damage is done.

A third native shrub that will satisfy our need for brilliant red foliage is the Sweetspire, Itea virginica. Two popular varieties are ‘Henry’s Garnet’, and ‘Little Henry’, the latter only reaching a height and width of 3 feet. Wonderfully fragrant, drooping spikes of white flowers bloom in mid July, giving way to unique seedheads. An excellent butterfly attractor, that fits into a mixed perennial border or foundation plant in full sun or light shade. Foliage turns and persists on the shrub again for several weeks, before falling and displaying uniquely red stems through winter. Truly a 4-season plant that will add color and fragrance to your garden.

These are but a tiny sample of the many plants that can provide fall color in your garden. We can still have the brilliant hues that we love while providing winter food and shelter with native plants!