Colorful Autumn Shrubs

Gone are the days when a shrub performed only once annually and then slipped into the background. Now we demand several seasons of brilliance, and autumn is a key time in the schedule. 

No longer just a throwaway wrap-up interlude, fall can be just as dramatic as spring—if you play your cards right. So put your sunglasses back on; the growing season isn’t over yet. Here are some suggestions for hard-hitting, autumn-blazing woody plants that glow. 


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Small Trees

Acer palmatum: Japanese maple

Grown for their statuesque shape, beautiful leaf forms, and poetic beauty, Japanese maples make stunning accents throughout the year. Even in winter, their naked branches are an artistic addition to any setting. But before these hard-working compact trees go bare, the foliage on many varieties turns incredible shades of orange, red, and yellow.

Amalanchier arborea: Serviceberry

Truly a three-season performer, the serviceberry (aka shadbush) produces lacy white flowers in spring followed by red berries in summer—much to the delight of foraging birds. The presentation is nice but not startlingly arresting—until fall. It is then that the slender leaves on this small, open-canopied tree turn raging orange with cranberry highlights. 

Cornus kousa: Kousa dogwood

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Fall is yet another reason to love this deservingly popular plant. Kousa dogwoods have won superstar status with the gardening crowd for their show-stopping early-summer display of white, cream, or pink flowers. A compact tree with layers of limbs, the kousa dogwood is a favorite of landscape designers and amateurs for small yards. Yet another reason to love this tree: In autumn, the leaves turn a peachy marmalade hue.

Gingko biloba: Gingko

This ancient tree with easily recognizable leaves has deep roots as one of the earliest woody plants. Prior to heavy frosts, its fan-shaped leaves turn bright yellow, for an arresting display. Although the tree can grow to 50-feet tall or more, dwarf hybrids are readily available. Be sure to purchase a male selection; the female produces seeds that can be a messy, smelly nuisance. 

Hamamelis x intermedia: Witchhazel

Long before anything is happening in the garden, when winter is still howling, witchhazels are gearing up to open their twisted, paper-like flowers. That precocious frigid-season show is one reason witchhazels are indispensable for gardens, but autumn is another highlight in the plant’s calendar of events. That’s when its broad, textured leaves turn to gold before drifting to the ground.

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Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’: Red chokeberry

Chokeberry is perfectly packaged to tuck into any garden. Like the serviceberry, it starts the season with lacy white umbels of flowers. Not long afterward, cardinal red berries follow, but the birds steal the show in no time. In autumn, the small leaves turn the same glistening bright red before they fall.

Clethra alnifolia: Summersweet clethra


​Enkianthus species: Enkianthus

The summersweet blossoms in midsummer, and its perfume seeps into every cranny of the garden. Not only is your nose entranced, pollinators (including hummingbirds) are called from all quarters. By autumn, those flowers fade, but their spent plumes retain a tight crown of long, slender, burnished gold leaves.

With early spring flowers that look like glistening little lanterns, this blueberry relative deserves to be more popular. Not only is it tidy and well-behaved, the glossy leaves turn garnet red in autumn before dropping. 

Fothergilla species: Fothergilla

A more compact version of the closely related witchhazel, fothergillas are invariably neatly dressed. From the blue-green leaves of spring to the early summer tufts of white flowers, they always look tidy. In autumn, they add tawny leaves to their list of virtues. Easily accommodated, fothergillas grow in sun or shade.

Hydrangea quercifolia: Oak-leaf hydrangea

Although the bright-blue mophead hydrangeas steal the show in high summer, their oak-leaf cousins deserve more fame. Bearing cotton-candy–like heads of cream-colored flowers in mid- to late summer, they are no shirkers when it comes to flowering. But their leathery, oak-shaped leaves put another season on the map when they turn blood-red in autumn. Those deeply colored leaves hold on to thrill when the weather turns chill.  

Colorful by Design

When you’re working with a shocking palette of suffused shades, try a few tricks to make the expanded color wheel merge with your scene.

• Profile colorful shrubs and trees against green backgrounds for maximum impact. Hedges of boxwood, conifers, and other evergreens make autumn hues pop.

• Group several autumn shrubs and trees together to enhance subtle gradations of color. In unison with colorful neighbors, the hues will be particularly artful.

• Shop in autumn for trees and shrubs with color. Although certain varieties are famed for their flaming hues, every individual has its own wardrobe, and some may be more brilliant than others.

• Set a statuesque Japanese maple off from its neighbors by displaying it in a container as a focal point. In a strategic place in the garden, it will shine.

• Don’t crowd the performers. When accenting the beauty of leaves, give each plant plenty of room to expand and reach its ideal wingspan. 

• Don’t rush to rake. A skirt of fallen leaves spread around a shrub or tree can look stunning and poignant while the color is still vivid. Wait for the leaves to lose their brilliance before bagging them up.


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