In areas of the country that experience seasonal changes, the landscape often turns bleak as autumn sets in. Frost blackens the vegetable garden and many ornamentals. The few flowers that tolerate cold weather, such as chrysanthemums and pansies, tend to be overused, and don’t always fit into the grand landscaping scheme.
Not to worry, though. Following are some common trees that provide visual interest in autumn, and they’re readily available through online nurseries, garden centers, and “big box” home improvement stores. They grow well from Zones 4 through 8, making them ideal choices for most home-owners in the United States.
Labor Day doesn’t have to signal the end of a beautiful landscape. By adding one or more of these trees, you can enjoy color in the yard and garden through Thanksgiving – and possibly longer.
The American sweetgum grows exceptionally tall – up to 75 feet – with a canopy that spreads nearly 50 feet wide. In autumn, the star-shaped leaves turn a brilliant copper-orange, and the tree holds its leaves nearly into winter, so the showy display lasts for weeks. This is not a tree for the small backyard, but it does make an excellent specimen tree that will accent a large landscaped area.
Sweetgums can be a little bit of a nuisance, as the non-hybridized type bears spine-covered fruit known as gumballs. These can make a mess if they fall and hit a parked car or patio furniture. There are a few hybrids on the market that bear few to no gumballs, though, or you can spray ethephron – one such product featuring it is FLOREL Brand Growth Regulator, available on Amazon – in the spring, when the tree is in full bloom, to prevent the formation of gumballs.
Black Gum (or Tupelo)
The black gum, or tupelo, is a slow-growing hardwood that’s partial to the acidic, moist soils found throughout the valleys in the Carolinas, Florida, and Mississippi.
The tupelo tree offers many benefits to the homeowner. It grows from 30 to 50 feet tall, with a canopy that spreads 20 to 30 feet across, creating magnificent summer shade. In spring, it bears showy flowers that resemble those of the spirea, and in the fall, the deep green, glossy leaves turn shades of crimson, russet orange, and purple. An additional benefit is that bees love to gather nectar from the flowers, and tupelo honey is considered one of the most succulent and prized on the market.
Ginkgo trees are considered to be living fossils. They’ve been cultivated throughout China for 500 years, and leaf fossils that have been discovered date back more than 240 million years.
These trees are highly adaptable with regard to soil type and air quality, and the fan-shaped leaves turn a bright golden yellow in the fall. Because they’re slow growing and can thrive in the confined space of the average city lot, they’re a good choice for the urban or suburban homeowner.
There’s one downside to the ginkgo, though, and that’s that the fruit it produces has a somewhat rank odor that worsens if the fruit that falls is allowed to rot. There’s a male cultivar on the market that produces no fruit, which would be a better choice for the homeowner living in a suburban or urban area.
Honey locust trees are extremely resilient. They tolerate drought, salt, compacted soil, and pollution. This is why the honey locust is often seen growing in concrete planters along city streets.
The tree provides light shade, as its leaves are lacy and delicate. A relative of the sweet pea, the native honey locust bears white flower racemes in spring, which turn into woody brown seedpods in fall. The pods, along with the golden yellow leaves, make this tree an autumn standout.
The sassafras tree is a native plant that grows quickly and tolerates soils ranging from well-drained loam to the acidic sandy loam prevalent along the eastern seaboard.
The sassafras can be grown as a tree with a single trunk, or as a tall, multi-stemmed shrub. In the fall, its mitten-shaped leaves turn deep bronze, crimson red, and can even border on purple. The heavily textured bark along the trunk adds to the display even after the leaves have fallen.
Sassafras trees are either male or female. While both have gold flowers in the spring, the female is the only one that bears fruit that’s readily eaten by deer, birds, and other wildlife. The bark and roots are both aromatic, and are the source of the sassafras flavoring oil that’s used to make root beer or tea.
The sugar maple is the tree most associated with fall color. Its distinctive pointed leaves turn a brilliant copper-orange, and are often tinged with gold. Hardy from growing Zones 4 through 8, sugar maples grow 50 to 80 feet tall, with a rounded canopy that spreads from 30 to 60 feet wide. Homeowners with patience and a large stand of sugar maples may even want to try their luck with tapping the trees in the spring – real maple syrup is worth the effort. Sugar maples tolerate most soil types, but are sensitive to salt, so it’s best not to place them too close to the road.