Predictions of fall color are all well and good — sometimes even accurate. After all, as William Cowper put it more than 200 Octobers ago, “A fool must now and then be right by chance.” Then too, in these mountains one can go up or down slope several hundred feet and find cooler or warmer or wetter or drier conditions that trigger differential displays.
But there’s a surer way to enjoy a blaze of brilliance as the season wanes: Plant it yourself. Numerous native shrubs and ornamental trees reliably color up, and many offer flowers or fruit as well as handsome foliage.
Best known in this region are the dogwoods, threatened now by anthracnose. The leaves of all cultivars of this species turn deep red or maroon in the fall and are festooned with bright-red berries. While the native white-flowering trees fall prey to disease, pink-flowering cultivars are immune, and all dogwood berries are savored by wildlife. Cedar waxwings, in particular, seem fond of the fruit; whole flocks of migrating birds descend on the trees at this time of year.
Another small tree, the farkleberry or sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) deserves to be a garden favorite. It sports twisted, irregular, reddish-barked branches; glossy, leathery leaves that turn crimson in fall; nodding, bell-shaped flowers in May; and glossy, black berries that persist into the winter. It’s a blueberry, and the fruit is consumed by wildlife, though it’s not considered palatable by humans. Dry soil in partial shade is best for this beauty.
Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) may grow to a dozen feet in height, and its white spring flowers are wonderfully fragrant. It really comes into its own in the fall and winter, however, when the branches are loaded with clusters of red berries that provide winter food for birds and small mammals. Full sun is needed for optimum production. The black chokeberry (Aronia prunifolia) is about half as tall with similar habits.
Nearly as tall, Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) sports drooping racemes of fragrant, densely packed white flowers in May and June, while the finely toothed leaves turn brilliant crimson to purplish red in autumn. Found naturally in wet-to-moist soils, this plant does well in light shade or partial sun.
Another tall shrub, spicebush (Lindera benzoin, does triple duty in the garden. All parts of the plant are aromatic and can be boiled to make tea; the yellow, early spring flowers produce bright scarlet berries in September; and the leaves turn clear yellow in fall. This is a dioecious species — only the female plants produce fruit. Bees and butterflies depend on spicebush as a source of nectar early in the season, and wildlife love the high-fat berries. The plant germinates easily from seed but is hard to transplant; it does well in light shade to part sun.
In the same size range, the highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) not only provides a crop of delicious fruit in midsummer but displays a wide range of fall colors, from yellow to orange to red. It does best in damp but well-drained soil in full sun. Partial shade reduces both the fruit crop and the color intensity. The lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) is similar but prefers drier soil
The oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is another white-flowered native, but this one sports a range of colors come fall, running from reddish orange to purple to brown. The white flowers also turn color: pinkish, then purple, and finally brown in June and July. They dry well and are often seen in dried-flower arrangements. The 3- to 6-foot-tall plant is drought-tolerant and does well in a wide range of soil types in partial sun or light shade.
The leaves of beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) are unspectacular, merely paling to yellow in the fall, but the namesake fruit more than makes up for it with an October display of clusters of bright, light-purple berries that encircle stems all along their length. About the same size as the hydrangea, it tolerates some shade but produces better in the sun and in moist soil.
In the same size range, the mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) exhibits what may be the widest color range of any native shrub, running from rose to red to pink to purple and sometimes yellow. The midspring flowers aren’t particularly showy, but the glossy, blue-black berries provide a fine counterpoint to autumn color and persist through the winter until eaten by wildlife. The plant does best in light shade and will tolerate moist-to-dry soils. A relative, the arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum), grows to about twice the height and prefers moister soil.
Dwarf witch-alder (Fothergilla gardenii), about half the size of the hydrangea, puts on a brighter autumn costume with swirls of yellows, oranges and reds. The early spring flowers resemble 2-inch-long, white bottle brushes. This plant prefers wet-to-moist soil with good drainage, and while it will tolerate part shade, both flowers and fall colors are brightest when grown in full sun.
Smaller still, the fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) makes up for its diminutive size with a brilliant fall show of bright-scarlet, orange and purple foliage. All parts of the plant are aromatic; the flowers are a favorite early source for nectar, and the berries are savored by wildlife. A bonus is that it will thrive in sunny, dry areas that many other plants can’t tolerate.
Another low-grower, yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima), offers yellow-and-red foliage in the fall. Because it forms mats, it is favored as a ground cover and spreads readily in wet-to-moist soils, in light shade to part sun.
Fall is the best time for planting most trees and shrubs. This is also the time to check out your neighbors’ and friends’ yards to get some bright ideas for next fall.
For more information about native perennials, check out Native Perennials for the Southeast (Cool Springs Press, 2004) by Xpress contributor Peter Loewer, and Gardening with the Native Plants of Tennessee (University of Tennessee Press, 2002) by Margie Hunter.