Trees for Fall Color


Few plants have more impact on your landscape than trees.  While some trees are at their peak appearance in spring or in summer, many look their best when decked out in their fall glory.  Here are a few highlights of fall color trees for the Willamette Valley.

Large trees for fall color

Ash – Quick to turn, but also quick to drop, ash trees often provide a prelude to the fall color season.  Many ash trees color in good to moderate shades of yellow, but some are much more dramatic:  Raywood Ash (Fraxinus oxycarpa ‘Raywood’) has smaller leaves that turn deep burgundy in early September, and Autumn Purple Ash (Fraxinus americana ‘Junginger’) shows a pretty cascade of colors – starting with yellow orange on the bottom and interior and ripening through red to deep purple on the top and outer leaves, providing an uplift effect.

Maples – Many maples large and small provide excellent color.  Varieties of Red Maple (Acer rubrum) typically provide bright red colors later in the season and are very tolerant of our heavy wet soils – look for classics like ‘October Glory’, or try some of the newer seedless varieties such as ‘Sun Valley’ or ‘Redpointe’ Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum) give warmer yellow-orange or orange-red color; try ‘Fall Fiesta’ for a more symmetrical and scorch resistant variety.  Silver Maples are weedy, weak, and trouble prone but the hybrids between them and the Red Maples (freeman hybrids, Acer x freemanii) give good performance and a composite color – each leaf picks its own shade of yellow, orange, red, or purple for a multi toned effect.  Many good varieties of these hybrids are available, I like ‘Autumn Blaze’ – longer lasting color and more emphasis on the orange and red color ranges.

Oaks – We often don’t think of oaks as fall color trees, but the Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) does turn a good red in the fall; and one of the oak cousins, the Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) is a top quality fall color tree.

Birches and Aspens – Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) turns a stunning bright yellow in the fall.  Birches also have good yellow color; due to borer issues they are seldom planted in our area any more, but the River Birch (Betula nigra) is quite resistant and an excellent performer here.

Ginkgo – There is no better yellow fall color than the Ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba).  Buy male varieties like ‘Princeton Sentry’ or ‘Autumn Gold’ to avoid the messy and unpleasant fruit.

Smaller trees for fall color

Witch Hazel – a large shrub to small tree, the Witch Hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia) provides late winter flowers and fall leaves in a mix of yellow, orange, and red.  One of the best fall color plants for partial shade.  Also worth mention is its close cousin, the Persian Ironbark (Parrotia persica) – many varieties with early spring flowers and good fall color, and the new variety ‘Persian Spire’ is better sized and shaped for small spaces.

Maples – Yes, we mentioned maples above, but not all are large shade trees.  The many variations of the Japanese Maples (Acer palmatum, but also Acer shirasawaum and Acer japonicum) have fall interest, some are quite stunning.  Our native Vine Maple (Acer circinatum), though variable in size, put on a good show in a mix of yellow, orange and red.

Dogwood – Best known for their distinctive spring flowers, Dogwoods (Cornus kousa and Cornus florida) also provide good fall color – orange to red to purple tones, depending upon variety and location.

Flowering Cherry – The ornamental cherry trees are stunning in spring flower, but a few also have quite good fall interest.  ‘Kwanzan’ (Prunus serrulata ‘Kwanzan’) and Akebono (Prunus x yedoensis ‘Akebono’) both develop good orange-yellow autumn foliage.