Last year about this time, I wrote an article on plants that provide fall color. In the article, I mentioned trees, shrubs and vines that would give us beautiful fall colors.
Most of the plants I wrote about are native to our area. They include sweet gum, black gum, red maple, bald cypress, sparkleberry, blueberry, Virginia creeper and poison ivy. These plants will give you purple, red, orange and some yellow color in your landscape in the fall.
Dogwoods are best known for the flowers they produce in the spring. There is nothing like the dogwood when it is in full bloom, but they can be just as striking in the fall.
The dogwoods in my yard are starting to turn orange-red. Not only are the leaves turning, but the trees have plenty of red berries on them that add color to the landscape.
The most common dogwood in our area is the flowering dogwood, Cornus florida . In our clay soil, dogwoods should be planted in partial shade or in areas that receive morning sun. If they are planted where they receive hot afternoon sun, they will have leaf scorch and not do well. They will grow in full shade, but they don't produce many flowers or have showy fall color. The more sun that they receive, the more flowers they will have in the spring and the better color they will have in the fall.
Another dogwood that does well in our area is the Kousa dogwood, Cornus kousa . It is native to Japan and Korea. This dogwood will grow 20 to 25 feet in height. One of its distinguishing characteristics is that the blooms come on the tree after the leaves. In the fall, the fruit will hang from the bottom side of the limb and will look like strawberries. The Kousa dogwood will have yellow or scarlet leaf color in the fall.
The next plant that I like in the fall, and anytime of the year, is sassafras, Sassafras albidum . There are a number of interesting characteristics of sassafras that make this tree unique. One is that the tree can have three different shaped leaves on the same limb. One leaf can be oval, another mitten-shaped and the third lobed on both sides. This leaf looks like a trident. The only other tree native to our area that has three shaped leaves on it is red mulberry.
The other thing that sassafras is known for is the tea that once was made from its roots. The tea is said to have the flavor of root beer. Sassafras trees are fast growers until they get 20 to 25 feet in height, and then they will slow down. Eventually, they can reach a height of 50 to 60 feet.
This tree will have excellent fall color in shades of yellow, orange, scarlet and purple. Most of the ones that I have seen are a bright scarlet. The color will depend on the amount of sun that the plant gets. Again, the more sun the better the color. Sassafras is hard to get established. They are hard to transplant, but if you cut the roots they will send up suckers at the point where the root is cut. Sassafras likes well-drained soils.
Another plant that I like is sumac. There are a number of sumacs that grow in our area. Some of the more common ones are fragrant sumac, Rhus aromatic , shining sumac, Rhus copallina , and smooth sumac, Rhus glabra . These are extremely hardy plants that will grow in a range of conditions; however, they like moist, well-drained soils best.
Sumacs provide brilliant fall color. The ones that I have in my landscape are dark red and scarlet, but the added benefit is the showy flowers that they have and the clusters of berries that they will produce. The reason that I try to have as much sumac as I can is that they are great nectar plants for honeybees.
You can find a sumac to match the height you need in your landscape. Fragrant sumac will grow 3 to 5 feet tall. The other sumacs can get 20 to 25 feet in height.
The most common sumac that grows in my area is the shining sumac. They will have flowers on spikes that are beautiful. This sumac can take over a small garden because the seeds tend to have great germination. If you cut the roots of sumac, the plant will produce suckers. Shining sumac will grow on dry, poor, rocky soils. We have plenty of this type of soil in Columbia County.
Why would I recommend planting sumac, a poisonous plant?
Well, there is a plant called poison sumac, Toxicodendron vernix , but it is not a sumac. The plant looks similar to sumacs, but it has greenish-white berries. True sumacs have red berries. In Georgia, sumacs are most common along the coast and coastal plains.
When choosing plants for landscapes, look for plants that are interesting during all seasons of the year.
Charles Phillips is a retired Columbia County Extension Service agent and operates Hort Consulting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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