Plants to Look Forward to as Fall Approaches
Casandra Maier- October, 2021
Taking time to observe the changing seasons offers a moment of mindfulness and connection to the present. Fall is one of the most dynamic times to experience all the color and texture the landscape has to offer. While the classic signs of fall include the fiery hues of oaks, maples, and aspens in the canopy above us, there are plenty of other plants in the understory that signal the season with equal spectacle. Look for these low-growing autumn trees, shrubs, groundcovers, and perennials while out in nature. These plants and specimens also make a colorful addition to the landscape, adding seasonal interest to the outdoor space as fall approaches.
Dwarf Japanese Maple
Latin name: Acer pal. 'Akita Yatsubusa'
USDA Hardiness Zones: 5-8
Acer palmatum is the scientific name for the Japanese Maple. These aesthetic trees are known for their unique branch structure, rounded growth habit, and star-shaped leaves with stunning red fall color. Dwarf varieties, particularly the 'Akita Yatsubusa', are easily spotted in the landscape standing only 4 feet tall at maturity. They are generally found growing as specimen trees in contemporary, urban, and Japanese gardens. Dwarf Japanese Maples are smaller, hardier, and more manageable in contrast with larger varieties which reach 20 to 25 feet. Landscape designers note that dwarf varieties are better suited for foundation planting and containers, as they are less likely to outgrow the space or cause structural damage. A true dwarf variety, the 'Akita Yatsubusa' offers four seasons of interest. Blushing pink leaves emerge in the spring, which darken to a deep lime green through the growing season, before burning out in a brilliant display of orange red as fall arrives. The pleasing branch structure offers artistic form when this deciduous tree drops its leaves in the winter months. Partial to full sun is best, but as an understory tree it also tolerates some shade. Providing both color and texture in the outdoor space, the Dwarf Japanese Maple also has uses in firewise landscaping.
Tiger Eyes Sumac
Latin name: Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger'
USDA Hardiness Zones: 4-8
Tiger Eyes Sumac is a dwarf deciduous tree that provides fall interest and serves as an accent in the outdoor space. Also called Staghorn Sumac, the 'Bailtiger' grows smaller and less aggressively compared to other sumac cultivars. It stands roughly 6 feet tall at maturity. However, it is also grown as a slow-spreading shrub at approximately 3 feet tall. To identify the Tiger Eyes Sumac in the landscape, look for a small shrubby tree with purplish branches and a compound leaf structure. Landscape designers note that it almost looks tropical. During the growing season, the saw-toothed leaves stand out in bright yellow. As fall approaches, the oblong palmy leaves deepen to the color of orange creamsicle, and in some cases darken to a scarlet hue. This specialty ornamental understory tree is both hardy and drought resistant, tolerating urban conditions. It is a good choice for curb appeal in the urban landscape. Tiger Eyes Sumac prefers full to partial sun. In its native form, this species is found growing naturally at the forest edge and along roadways.
Little Henry Sweetspire
Latin name: Itea virginica 'Sprich'
USDA Hardiness Zones: 5-9
When compared to other Sweetspire varieties, Little Henry puts on an autumn show like no other. This cultivar offers the best fall color as the leaves turn to deep golds, oranges, and garnet reds when cooler weather arrives. The colorful deciduous leaves remain past other plants in the landscape, holding on until the early winter months. While this shrub tolerates shade, landscape designers note that more sun further intensifies the fall color. To identify Little Henry Sweetspire, look for a shrub with an arching branch structure and shiny green ovate leaves, standing approximately 2 to 3 feet tall. Long fragrant white flowers decorate this shrub during the summer months, attracting butterflies and pollinators. Typically found growing in Zen, woodland, rustic, and contemporary-style gardens, this dwarf variety is manageable and low maintenance. It is often planted to control wet areas and erosion, making it fitting for borders, embankments, and rain gardens. Its compact rounded growth habit makes it appropriate for containers and foundation planting. Little Henry Sweetspire is hardy and resistant to most pests and diseases, including deer.
Latin name: Callicarpa americana
USDA Hardiness Zones: 5-10
Fall interest plants aren't only about changing leaves. The American Beautyberry is known for its stunning ornamental berry display. To identify this shrub, look for a vase-like shape with an open branch structure, standing between 3 and 6 feet in height. As fall approaches, dense glossy berry clusters form along the branches. These purple hued berries vary in shade from violet to magenta, standing out against the typical greenery of the landscape. As the season progresses, the deciduous foliage of the American Beautyberry turns from green to burnt orange before dropping off. The fruits tend to hold their aesthetic value, remaining on the branches into early winter while providing a food source for birds. Landscape designers note that more sunlight increases berry production. Berry production also increases when multiple Beautyberries occupy the same space. This shrub is found growing naturally on the forest floor. In manicured outdoor spaces, it is extremely versatile, serving as a specimen, massing, or border plant. As a relatively pest and disease-free shrub, rustic, cottage, woodland, and wildlife gardens all benefit from the aesthetic value of the American Beautyberry.
Latin: Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
USDA Hardiness Zones: 5-9
Leadwort is an herbaceous groundcover that also goes by the common name, Plumbago. This interactive plant is used to fill in areas in the outdoor space. It's known for its unique impact and fall interest. To identify Leadwort, look for a low-growing groundcover with shiny ovate foliage on wire-like stems. During the month of July, 3/4 inch blue flowers bloom over top of the leaves. Known for its long-lasting flowering period, this plant blooms well into the month of September. Before all the flowers have expired, the fall show begins. The dark green leaves change to a burnt red. This groundcover's most unique moment is the time in September when the blue flowers endure, and the leaves begin to bronze. The blues, reds, and greens create a dynamic showy display. Leadwort thrives in both sun and shade. Landscape designers recommend utilizing this durable fast-spreading groundcover as a massing, edging, border, or understory plant. It is fitting for rock gardens, rustic, and cottage-style landscapes.
Dwarf Nikko Deutzia
Latin name: Deutzia gracilis ‘Nikko’
USDA Hardiness Zones: 5-8
Also called Slender Deutzia, 'Nikko' is a dwarf cultivar that is technically a deciduous shrub. However, due to its low-growing mounding habit, it is also grown as a groundcover. To identify Dwarf Nikko Deutzia, look for an arching branch structure, standing approximately 2 feet tall and 5 feet wide. In the springtime, upright white fragrant flowers appear around the bright green foliage. During fall, the leaves change to a lovely hue of purple or red burgundy. Landscape designers recommend this showy plant due to its spring and fall interest. Other Deutzia varieties do not provide the same fall color and grow larger and less compact than 'Nikko'. Fall color increases with more sunlight, although partial sun is also tolerated. As a non-herbaceous groundcover, it is less prone to weeds. It is hardy and requires little to no maintenance. Dwarf Nikko Deutzia provides erosion control, has uses in firewise landscaping, and is also pet friendly. It is fitting for open and understory areas of woodland, urban, and rock gardens. It may also be grown as an edging, border, massing, or foundation planting.
Dwarf Goat's Beard
Latin name: Aruncus aethusifolius
USDA Hardiness Zones: 3-9
Dwarf Goat's Beard is an herbaceous flowering perennial that provides accent qualities from early summer through the fall. Standing approximately one foot tall, this plant is identifiable with its clumping growth habit and showy flowers that stand out above glossy fern-like foliage. The flowers are a creamy ivory color that slowly fade into dried seed plumes as fall approaches. Landscape designers note that the seed plumes may be deadheaded and removed, though some gardeners enjoy letting them stay on for their attractive ornamental quality. Once the flowers have rusted away, the leaves of the Dwarf Goat's Beard begin to stand out with color variegation. The fall color appears on a spectrum of brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds. Fall interest is a unique quality for a flowering perennial, making this an excellent accent for planting beds, borders, and containers. Preferring full sun to partial shade, Dwarf Goat's Beard is fitting for rock gardens, informal, and cottage-style landscapes.
Latin name: Amsonia hubrichtii
USDA Hardiness Zones: 5-9
True to its name, Bluestar is known for half inch star-shaped powder blue flowers that appear in clusters in late spring. This herbaceous perennial is easily identifiable with upright clumping threadleaves, standing approximately 2 to 3 feet tall with an equal spread. Bluestar's soft, thin feathery leaves have a whimsical quality. As another unique flowering perennial with fall interest, the bright green foliage turns to colors of yellow or gold in autumn. It thrives in full sun to partial shade; however, more sun is associated with more vibrant fall color. Landscape designers recommend cutting this plant back after flowering to maintain the mounding growth habit and prevent the fine leaves from drooping. Other common names for Bluestar include Arkansas Bluestar and Hubricht's Amsonia. It is commonly planted in rock gardens, rain gardens, cottage, rustic, and woodland-style landscapes. Its fast growth rate makes it good for massing, but it also makes an attractive accent or container plant. Bluestar is deer resistant, while attracting butterflies to the outdoor space.