So I just realized that I haven’t posted something to this blog in over 4 years! I guess the best excuse I can offer is that having a baby (now a preschooler), starting (and finishing) grad school, and getting back to a full-time job gobbles up spare time and brain power faster than I realized. But now I am excited to 1) have some free time to 2) periodically writing things that aren’t for a grade and 3) get back to some serious gardening (it has been kind of low on priorities list, and it shows!). Although I will also add that I started drafting this post in mid-November, and am not getting around to actually publishing it until after the Winter Solstice! So this post isn’t going to be as timely as I had hoped, but as I look out my window I’m still seeing colorful leaves on trees in my neighborhood (even after Christmas).
Right now, it is a great time in the lowcountry to get outside and enjoy the break from the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes (I could not walk from my front door from my car for most of the spring, summer, and fall without getting several itchy bites to show for it; there’s no telling how bad it would have been if I had actually kept up with any kind of serious yard work). Although we’re not generally a fall color destination, the lowcountry does have many nice displays of deciduous foliage this time of year, too. While this list is by no means exhaustive — mainly it’s just things I’ve been noticing in my neighborhood — hopefully it will give you a greater appreciation of the different colors to look for in your landscape.
NATIVE SPECIES for FOLIAGE:
Red Maple (Acer rubrum). The common name, as you may guess, is in reference to this tree’s red twigs, buds, flowers, and autumn leaves. They have been called “the light that brightens the fall color sky” (Dirr, 2009) and “early harbingers of fall” because their
leaves are turning vibrant shades of red long before other eastern deciduous trees begin changing colors. But did you know that it is also one of the most abundant species in the Eastern Deciduous Forest? This is likely due to the fact that red maples are “supergeneralists” that can successfully establish themselves on the widest variety of sites and in the greatest range of conditions of any North American species (USDA NRCS, 2017). Red maples can be found at elevations from 0 to 900 meters, sunny or shady sites, nutrient rich or poor soil, and wet or dry conditions. They have been called “early harbingers of fall” because their leaves are turning vibrant shades of red long before other eastern deciduous trees begin changing colors.
If you happen to have access to a red maple tree (6″ in diameter or greater), you could participate in a citizen science project through NC State University called A Tree’s Life. The purpose of the study is to collect large-scale data on tree growth in order to understand effects of climate warming. The researchers send you a dendrometer to install on your tree and provide yearly growth measurements. We got ours started this spring!
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) has been called the most beautiful native tree of North America and the “aristocrat of native flowering trees” (Dirr, 2009). It is no surprise that two states — both Virginia and North Carolina — claim it as their state flower. Dogwood is another tree with beautiful red leaves in the fall. Additionally, its red berries (high in calcium and fat) are an important food source during the fall and winter for songbirds, forest edge species, and upland game birds. After the leaves have fallen from the tree, they break down more rapidly than most other species, making flowering dogwood an important soil improver (USDA NRCS, 2017).
In his book about native plants of the southeast, Larry Mellichamp rates Oak-leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) as an “outstanding plant” — one that is a must have for the garden, with three or four seasons of interest and no negative traits. The leaves of this native hydrangea are large and maple-like, and turn scarlet to crimson in the fall. Although they are deciduous, in my garden, most of the leaves are retained through the winter. Even if the leaves do fall off, the exfoliating bark of this shrub is very attractive. The oakleaf hydrangea in my garden haven’t changed colors yet, but I have it tucked into a pretty shady part of my yard. I’ve noticed that plants situated in sunnier locations tend to drop their leaves earlier.
Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). If there’s one thing most people can agree on, it is that sweetgum balls (the “fruit” of this tree) may be the most obnoxious lawn & garden issue in this part of the country. There are even injections an arborist can use on these trees to prevent them from producing the balls, and having been on the receiving end of a sweetgum ball being ricocheted out of a lawnmower at warp-speed, let me tell you I’ve considered it. However, there are two facts I use to remind myself that these are trees are valuable: 1) they are excellent larval hosts for butterflies and moths, like the Luna moth; and 2) they actually have some decent fall color. The star-shaped leaves turn beautiful shades of yellow, red and purple. I was also surprised to read that sweetgum has commercial value as veneer, furniture, and plywood panels (Porcher and Rayner, 2001) — so if you do get annoyed enough to chop it down, at least you can use the wood to make something!
Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica) is actually one of my favorite spring flowering semi-evergreen shrubs, but it is also quite charming in the fall. In our a low spot in our yard, I have three planted in an impromptu rain garden due to their ability to thrive in poorly-drained soils (although they can survive in drier conditions if they are irrigated — a well-planned rain barrel could be useful in this capacity!). The leaves turn red to purple in the fall and persist through the winter; so even though it is technically a deciduous shrub, the limbs don’t tend to be bare for long before the new foliage emerges in the spring.
Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum) is sometimes planted as an ornamental for its shiny leaves and showy fruit, but I see it commonly growing along edges of habitats or disturbed areas (like roadsides or paths). Only the female plants produce berries, which provide winter food for many mammals, gamebirds, and songbirds — and the fruit is edible and can be made into a tea-like drink that tastes like lemonade. The leaves are pinnately compound and turn red/purple in the fall. Oh, and by the way, don’t worry about confusing this beautiful shrub with another plant with a similar name but bad bad reputation: poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix). All “good” sumacs have hairy, red berries; poison sumac is related to poison ivy and poison oak and has greenish/white berries and leaflets with smooth margins.
Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) is one of the few deciduous (hence the common name “bald”) conifer trees, whose needles turn a lovely rust or copper color in the fall. In wet conditions, they produce buttressed trunks and “knees” on their root systems; bald cypress will also grow well in drier sites. They make for good urban trees (planted along roadsides and in parking lots) because they can tolerate compacted, poor soils. Historically, bald cypress was one of the most important lumber trees in the south (Porcher and Rayner, 2001) due to the essential oils which prevented rot and promoted durability of the wood.
You may be surprised that several vines — such as Muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia) and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) — are also quite showy this time of year. The muscadine looks like yellow garland strung amongst tree branches, and Virginia creeper takes on a brilliant orange or red hue.
Larry Mellichamp describes the Virginia creeper as “the best fall color of any vine and is as good as the best shrubs as well.” The dark blue berries of the Virginia creeper may persist through winter until they are eaten. Unlike other climbing vines, the Virginia creeper clings to surfaces using adhesive discs and not penetrating rootlets. Virginia creeper gets confused with poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), but they can easily be differentiated if you remember the rhyme “leaves of three, let it be; leaves of five, let it thrive.”
The two most common invasive species that I see this time of year — because they do have really striking, bold fall colors — are Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana) and Chinese Tallow (Triadica sebifera). Although they are beautiful, please keep in mind that they are highly destructive to our native forests and landscapes. The SC Exotic Pest Plant Council (SC-EPPC) has listed Bradford pear as a Significant Threat and Chinese Tallow as a Severe Threat. The litter from the tallow tree inhibits the growth of other species’ seedlings — which is a problem for native plants.
If you are looking for more suggestions of plants to add to your southern garden for fall interest and color, I’d recommend taking a look at the lists provided in The New Southern Living Garden Book (check the “Plant Finder” section at the beginning of the book) and Native Plants of the Southeast (peruse “Plants for Special Situations and Purposes” at the back of the book). Once you find a plant you’re interested in, both books have individual entries for each species with more information about growth requirements (sun, moisture, etc.).
How are you celebrating autumn in your garden? Please share with me the plants you’re admiring!
- Dirr, Michael. 2009. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (6th Edition). Stipes Publishing, LLC: Champaign, IL.
- Mellichamp, L. 2014. Native Plants of the Southeast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 460 Species for the Garden. Timber Press: Portland, OR.
- The New Southern Living Garden Book: The Ultimate Guide to Gardening. 2015. Oxmoor House: New York, NY.
- Porcher, R. and D. Rayner. 2001. A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina. University of South Carolina Press: Columbia, SC.
- USDA NRCS. 2017. Plants Database. Available at https://plants.usda.gov/java/
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. 2017. Native Plants Database. Available at https://www.wildflower.org/plants/
- South Carolina Exotic Pest Plant Council. 2014. Exotic Invasive Plant Species of South Carolina. Available at https://www.se-eppc.org/southcarolina/Publications/InvasivePlantsBooklet.pdf