The great thing about this time of year is that the days are cooler (well mostly, it’s supposed to hit 87 today), the humidity drops, and we start to shake free from summer’s brutal grasp. The not-so-great thing is that most plants are done blooming by the time my birthday rolls around in early October. What’s a gardener who loves plants and colors and such to do? Luckily there are some fall landscape plants that continue the show well into the cooler months. Here are a few – 8 to be precise.
My favorite fall landscape plants
There’s something magic about beautyberry (Callicarpa). As summer fades the bright purple berries come out, and they persist past when the leaves drop off, leaving bare stems covered in clusters of bright purple berries. Calliacarpa americana is described as having a spread of 3-6 ft high and 3-6 ft wide, and it seems to do pretty well in everything from full sun to moderate shade. It’s a winner for me, and I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t love it.
2. Winterberry Holly
When most people think of hollies they think of the evergreens with dark green, glossy leaves and red berries. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) has the red berries but it’s a deciduous holly. Similar to the beautyberry above, winterberry drops its leaves to reveal massive sprays of berries, except that on winterberry they’re a bright red. The photo above was taken in December so you can see just how much mileage you get from this amazing shrub. When choosing, read the tag as there are several different varieties and they vary from 3 ft to 12 ft in size. You’ll probably want to know which one you’re buying.
3. Oakleaf Hydrangea
Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) doesn’t take center stage for long but when it does, it’s worth it. The leaves turn a deep burgundy color that’s made all the more amazing by the fact that they were just “meh” green leaves all season. ‘Alice’ can get up to 8 ft tall and wide; ‘Pee Wee’ is smaller, 3-4 ft high and around 3 ft wide. Just be aware that ‘Pee Wee’ really will get to that size, so plan accordingly. Luckily they transplanted well for me.
Goldenrod, aka ‘Solidago canadensis‘, is one of my favorite fall perennials. Late summer is when it starts the show, producing thin lines of yellow akin to a blonde Poirot’s mustache. Here in Virginia you’ll see it in ditches and fields everywhere in fall. There are also wonderful commercial varieties, my favorite of which is ‘Golden Fleece’. And for those who would say “but my allergies…” I was told that goldenrod and ragweed bloom concurrently. You see the goldenrod, so it gets blamed for what the ragweed does. Stupid ragweed.
5. Fragrant Sumac
I’ve ignored sumac (Rhus) for much of my career. Especially here in Virginia it pops up so easily in disturbed soils that I wrote it off as a weed. Dummy. ‘Grow-Low’ (Rhus aromatica ‘Grow-Low’) is an especially charming variety for several reasons. It stays short, topping off at around 1-2 feet, but it spreads about 8 feet if allowed to. When crushed, the leaves give off a pleasant fragrance (thus the genus name ‘aromatica’). But we came here today to talk about fall color, and that’s what sumac is all about! When the leaves change, expect them to put on a show with a blaze orange going to red that’s hard to miss. Even better, ‘Grow-Low’ is something a lot of your friends won’t have seen so you can expect a lot of “whoa what is THAT?!” at your next fall BBQ. Because sometimes plant lovers just want to show off.
6. Dwarf Fountain Grass
NOTE: be sure to check with your local extension office to see if Pennisetum is considered an invasive in your area!
What a lot of people don’t realize about dwarf fountain grasses (Pennisetum alpecuroides) is that they’re ok singly or in small groups, but they are amazing as a massed planting. Come fall, the sense of movement that the delicate grasses evoke is amplified with the huge foxtail-looking plumes that grace the tips. My two favorites are the ever popular ‘Hameln’ and the purple-tinged ‘Moudry’. Expect both to make 18-30″ high and wide at the max.
There are approximately 1.5 gazillion maples to choose from, give or take, but several are well suited to providing spectacular displays of fall color. ‘October Glory’ (Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’) turns a brilliant red in the fall. ‘Commemoration’ Sugar maple (Acer saccharum ‘Commemoration”) turns an orange that would make a duck hunter’s safety vest feel inferior. Even the yellows can be bold and brilliant. I’m unsure what the one across the street from our house is (pictured) but I adore it. It should go without saying that maples get big, so plan accordingly.
8. Southern Magnolias
This may seem like an odd choice. How exciting can an evergreen tree really be? Thing is, Southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) holds up visually really well throughout the season. Even hollies can look a little grayed out as mid fall heads towards winter, but the deep glossy green leaves somehow manage to hold up.
Magnolias are also extremely versatile. What do I mean? Your “typical” ones like “DD Blanchard” get huge, up to 50 ft tall and 35 ft wide. But you have dwarf magnolias too, like ‘Teddy Bear’ and ‘Little Gem’ topping out at around 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. An added bonus is that ‘Little Gem’ can be trained to grow on a trellis, giving you a unique evergreen screen for a small space all year long.
If you haven’t jumped into plant geekery’s deep end yet I hope this list was helpful. On the other hand if you have, what are some fall and winter plants that make your landscape great?