October is well entrenched. The smell of woodsmoke is everywhere, cool, crisp mornings and evenings have become the norm, and the sky is that perfect blue that only happens in autumn, providing a perfect backdrop for the changing leaves. Peak color is usually around the 2nd or 3rd week of the month. Knowing which trees and shrubs to plant that will provide beautiful fall color and interest ensures that we can all enjoy our gardens for just a little bit longer.
Of our common native trees, Red or Swamp Maples (Acer rubrum), are the first to start changing. I’ve seen color on the tops of some trees as early as the first week of August for the last couple of years. Their bright red color is a sign that fall is on its way, but know that there is usually some time before it really settles in. Though most have fallen just this past week, some trees are still holding onto their leaves, flaming beacons in the forest.
Birch, poplar, and aspen are next, usually, and turn myriad shades of yellow, staying for just a short time before falling. White and Green Ash (Fraxinus americana and F. pennsylvanica), change at around the same time. While Green Ash turns a bright golden yellow, White Ash rivals our Sugar Maples for multiple colors on a single tree. Different cultivars will change different colors, one of the more popular ones being ‘Autumn Purple’, changing to shades of deep orange, red, and as its name implies, purple. Our native trees in the forest will do similar, but often throw yellow into the mix as well. Their leaves drop fairly soon after changing, and are the first to necessitate raking the lawn. Birch leaves are small, and can disappear into grass, but ash leaves are much more substantial. They are often accompanied by White Pine (Pinus strobus) needles that turn our lawns and driveways orange… Keep in mind that pine needles make wonderful winter protection mulch, don’t just toss ’em out with the rest of the leaves if you can save them!
The glory of New England in the fall is the Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum). Queens of the forest, they provide us with delicious maple syrup in the spring, cool shade in the summer, and glorious colors in the fall. From brightest yellows to deepest reds, this is the tree that everybody thinks of when they think of fall.
The moment all the maple leaves and pine needles are cleared from the yard is a signal for all the Oaks (Quercus spp.) to drop their leaves. Sometimes they’ll wait for the first snowfall and cover the perfect white landscape with dozens of dark brown curled memories of autumn. Oak trees are often overlooked for their fall color, since it comes and goes so quickly, but they turn beautiful shades of dark gold, deep orange, and burgundy. You need to be sharp-eyed to catch the slightly more subtle, but rich colors of the oaks, and it is well worth it.
Beech trees (Fagus spp.) are much more polite than oaks, and hold on to their leaves till spring. Turning bright yellow in autumn, they remain curled on the branches, a pale toffee-cream color, providing a bit of interest through the winter. Sunlight through a changed beech will make it glow golden, after all other leaves have fallen.
Our native shrubs are excellent for fall foliage as well. Serviceberry (Amelanchier) and deciduous Azaleas compete with Sugar Maple for brightness and variety of colors, and Sweetspire (Itea), and Viburnum change to beautiful red. Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) changes to yellows, oranges, and purples, and along with Viburnums, gives the added bonus of little red (or blue) fruits, providing both unique interest and food for various species of wildlife.