Bright Ideas For Colorful Fall Foliage

Ilona Erwin

Inevitably, as seasons change we see, and lust for, the color focus that picture perfect plantings of fall provide. In Autumn, without a doubt, it is the rich pigment of colorful changing foliage that delights our eye.

Even the bountiful blooms of chrysanthemums in their tapestry of colors hardly provide competition to an outstanding display of fall foliage.

In the spirit of that focus, I offer some bright ideas for a fall foliage display that will satisfy your desire to create a colorful end to the growing season.

Plants for Average Moisture and Soil Conditions

The majority of Midwest gardens have “average” conditions: not too wet, not too dry, with some fertility in anything from clay to loam or sandy soils. Many of these places were once hardwood forests and can grow a wide number of very colorful autumn foliage plants.

maple platanoides
Maples are the Queen of Autumn

Trees and Shrubs with Excellent Fall Coloring

  • Maples, in variety, have vivid shades of yellow or orange, and red- depending on the species.
  • Katsura tree for delicious orange hue.
  • Ginkgos are a golden yellow in fall.
  • Redbud trees turn shining yellow.
  • Sumacs have gorgeous shades of crimson and flame.
  • Nyssa sylvatica has named cultivars, “Wildfire”, “Red Rage” , or “Afterburner”.
Be aware that some trees historically known for their good qualities including rich autumn hues, may no longer be recommended. If you live in an area where the Emerald Ash Borer is prevalent, for instance, then Ash trees -as beautiful as they are- aren’t as desirable as were at one time.

Shrub List
  • Cotinus coggygria qualifies as an ornamental tree. Glowing reds or oranges.
  • Cornus stolinifera, ‘Arctic Fire’
  • Lindera benzoin is a native with wonderful yellow late in the season.

Perennials Which Contribute Fall Color

fall perennials
Fall color of perennials planted in my Driveway bed.

Bring a palette of shimmering golds and yellow to the lower layer of the garden with perennials that will also contribute autumn coloration. Occasionally, plants will turn lovely amber or red, too. Strawberries have good autumn shades, and try the following plants:

Good Autumn Color for a Moist Area

Make sure you have water enough to keep these plants happy, then make your garden scene sing with these plantings.

Autumn leaves of Cornus alba
Autumn color of Cornus alba  
originally posted to Flickr by peganum
  • Cornus Alba elegantissima is also known as Cornus alba “Argenteomarginata” and brings a triple whammy of variegated leaves during the growing season, pretty autumn colors of gold, apricot and rose and red twigs for winter interest. It must have moisture to do well.
  • The American dogwood tree, Cornus florida,  an ornamental tree that has dark crimson leaves in the fall.
  • American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) has yellow to orange-red fall color.
  • Hostas turn a beautiful clear golden color and grow very well in moist soils.
  • Downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) has good fall color and spring flowers. Birds love the “Juneberries”.
  • Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Plantings That Add Vibrance

  • Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) turn a clear yellow.
  • Sneezeweed (Helenium spp.)   has late season bloom in mellow shades.
  • Heucheras are bred for their foliage colors, and they often turn a similar, somewhat different shade in the fall.

Ideas for Moist Garden Combination

If you have a shrub or tree, add a base of lily of the valley.  Convallaria majalis will give you fragrant racemes of ivory white flowers in the spring, and golden russet-tipped leaves in fall. As a groundcover plant it will grow well under shrubs.

Red twig dogwood (Cornus alba) with Hostas in a blue-green variety. This pairing will provide a long period of interest. Red twigs in winter/spring with a late appearance of the hostas with their glaucous blue, ribbed leaves for the summer. During that time the hostas will bloom with spires of pretty flowers.

Finally, in fall the C. alba shrub foliage will show color and the hostas will turn golden tints to harmonize into another garden cycle of interest. This is best in part-sun or dappled shade, with regular moisture. If your garden conditions allow it, wildflowers interspersed with the hostas would provide additional beauty in the spring.

Hornbeam trees with asters and sneezeweed.  Classic late season flowering of the asters make harmonies with the sunshine clarified leaves of the hornbeam. Rich tints from the Heleniums complete an autumn tapestry. 

Woodland native plants, for shady spaces.

Witch hazels with heucheras planted at the base. Witch hazels have highlights in earliest spring, when they bloom, and fall, when the leaves become lemon, amber, or crimson. In between the colors of caramel or chartreuse from some of the Heuchera hybrids can play the top notes of summer’s song. In autumn they will deepen or brighten to

Read More Autumn Color Articles


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Ilona Erwin, author

Meet the Author

Ilona Erwin

I started working on this website beginning in 1998, when it was part of Ilona's Reflecting Pool. Since then I've branched out into a number of online endeavors and work at writing lots of content for my sites. "Ilona's Garden" remains my primary site and is dedicated to home gardener's success.