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Shrubs for Fall Color

Bushes and Vines With Colorful Leaves

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Picture of arrowwood viburnum shrubs.

The colorful leaves of arrowwood viburnum shrubs (Viburnum dentatum).

Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden

Injecting fall colors into the landscape is about more than just planting red maples and other trees that display colorful leaves (see Fall Foliage Pictures). As my Top 10 List will show, there are many shrubs for fall color (and some vines), too. Some bear colorful berries, others leaves; and some exhibit both. In this article I have selected ten of them (in no particular order) that I'd like to call attention to. The shrubs and vines in this list can be grown in most parts of the U.S. (the average hardiness zone range being from zone 4 to zone 8).

Top 10 Shrubs and Vines for Fall Color

  1. Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)
  2. Sumac
  3. Fothergilla
  4. Tor Spirea
  5. Blackhaw Viburnum
  6. American Bittersweet
  7. Oakleaf Hydrangea
  8. Virginia Creeper
  9. Red Chokeberry
  10. Viking Black Chokeberry

Based on colorful leaves alone, burning bush shrubs (Euonymus alatus) would make the list. So why don't I recommend planting burning bushes? Well, unfortunately, these fall color standouts are invasive plants. As an alternative, consider Virginia sweetspire. But in terms of what was considered the "best" burning bush when the plant was still recommended, the consensus at landscape nurseries seemed to be that the 'Rudy Haag' variety was the top of the line; as a true dwarf, it was easy to maintain. The 'compactus' variety of burning bush has been extremely popular for years, too, but its name is more wishful thinking than reality -- it does not maintain a "compact" form as successfully as does 'Rudy Haag.' 'Rudy Haag' achieves a height of 3-5'and a spread 3-5'.

Part of the story behind burning bush's invasiveness is the fact that, while it prefers well-drained soil, it is not very particular about where it grows. Although burning bushes have more colorful leaves in fall when growing in sunny locations, they do tolerate shade, which is why they've been able to escape into wooded areas -- where they become a nuisance. Likewise, burning bush tolerates drought -- to the extent that the plant won't readily die when deprived of optimal irrigation. However, insufficient water intake hinders the development of the colorful leaves that are its trademark.

The shrub at the top of my list, arrowwood viburnum bears white flowers in spring. In autumn, arrowwood viburnum shrubs give you a 2-for-1: nice fall foliage (see picture, above right) and blue berries. They can range anywhere from 6 feet tall to 15 feet tall.

Sumac bushes may not be the first thing that comes to mind for providing fall colors in the landscape. In fact, they're more likely to be considered a weed. As I point out in my article on sumac shrubs, this is probably due to the fact that once a plant is identified as "sumac," homeowners often jump to the conclusion that the plant is "poison sumac." In reality, poison sumac would hardly ever be found in a front yard, unless your front yard is a swamp -- which is poison sumac's habitat. As I illustrate in my gallery of poison sumac pictures, the easiest way to distinguish poison sumac from non-poison sumac is by comparing their berries.

The colorful leaves of the many types of non-poison sumac provide fall colors ranging from reddish or maroon to golden. Two such varieties are staghorn and smooth sumac. The widespread staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is a relatively tall variety (reaches 18 feet to 35 feet). Smooth sumac is another type widely encountered; it's botanical name is Rhus glabra. This bush can grow to 10 feet tall at maturity.

Fothergilla (Fothergilla major) is a spherical multi-stemmed shrub with white flowers in spring that carry a fragrant aroma. In fall the dark green foliage of summer changes to colors of yellow, orange and scarlet. Reaching 6-10' high, the shrub spreads 5-9'. Fothergilla should be planted in a sunny or partially-sunny location on your landscape.

The shrub 'Tor' spirea (Spiraea betulifolia 'Tor') reaches a height of 2-3' and spreads out 2-3'. It requires full sun. The shrub's foliage is dark green in summer, but its fall color is red. In May the plant bears small, white flowers in clusters.

Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) is similar to the shrub Hawthorn in the way that it grows except it has no thorns. The shrub yields white flowers in May, which become an edible fruit at harvest time. Fall color is offered not only by these bluish-black berries but also by colorful leaves. Dark green foliage morphs to purple to reddish-bronze to a crimson in fall. It achieves a height of 12-15' and a spread 8-12'.

On Page 2 we'll look at some more standout shrubs for fall color....

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