Fall is one of the best reasons to have a woodland garden. Plants that normally play background to flowers and ornamentals—those that make up the canopy and understory layers—suddenly flush with color to take center stage. It’s time to look up for a while and see the beautiful leaves and the bright blue sky! When spent leaves eventually fall to the forest floor, they provide cover for caterpillars (which means more butterflies!) and decompose to produce compost for next year’s perennials. Yay for leaves and woody plants! But on to the list …
10 Excellent Trees and Shrubs for Fall Color and Wildlife:
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
I will try not to gush too much about spicebush, but it really is a great shrub, a shrub for all seasons. The fragrant leaves turn clear yellow in the fall, and on female plants, there’s the bonus of large red berries. The berries are edible and can be used as flavoring for ice cream and puddings, breads, etc. Even without the berries, adorable round beads along the stems add interest and contain the fragrant yellow flowers of spring. Spicebush swallowtails could show up in your garden, too, if you have this plant.
Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
Beautyberry leaves fade through several shades of green to chartreuse and yellow, but brightly colored berries are the real reason to grow the plant. Magenta of rare intensity makes a nice foil for the pale leaves. Birds make good use of the berries during fall and winter, and bees and other nectaring insects appreciate the spring flowers.
Fothergilla (Fothergilla spp.)
Fothergilla probably takes top spot on my list of favorite shrubs. The intense red-orange fall color is reason enough, but sweet-smelling bottlebrush flowers bloom with the azaleas (and attract butterflies and bees). Perky blue-green leaves fill in between the spring and fall shows.
Witch hazel (Hamamelis spp.)
The witch hazels color up yellow to deep apricot. Depending on species, distinctively fragrant flowers open at a particularly welcome time—sometime between fall and late winter. Witch hazels are popular with squirrels in my garden; they seem to love the seeds. Witch hazels have a long history of herbal uses. Like my other favorite shrubs, they are far from one trick ponies!
Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)
Itea is an adaptable shrub, preferring moist soils in some sun, but it will do very well in dry shade, too, perhaps suckering a little less in that situation. The olive green leaves turn intensely red to burgundy-purple in fall. In spring gracefully droopy spikes of white flowers appear, which butterflies and bees like to visit. Seeds persist into the winter, supporting wildlife when little else is available.
Sumac (Rhus spp.)
The sumacs are sometimes feared. “Aren’t they poisonous?” Or, “They sucker to beat the band!” Fortunately, there is only one poisonous one, and you are unlikely to encounter outside wetland environments. Sumacs will sucker if they like where you put them, so be sure you have the space, or try growing one in a container. Wildlife of many types (game birds, song birds, mammals, bees) frequent sumacs. The fruits are relished by birds, and though they are sour, they are edible for humans, too. Many sources mention that they can be used to make a lemonade-type drink. Fall color is unbeatable in shades of red and orange.
Maple (Acer spp.)
Maple’s brilliant shades of yellow, orange, and red are the definition of fall to many. It’s hard to imagine talking about autumn without mentioning them. Red maples and sugar maples are common native trees in the eastern US, and there are various cultivars available. For small gardens, Japanese maples provide the same fabulous color (but less wildlife value).
Hickory (Carya spp.)
On the east coast where oak-hickory forests dominate, hickory trees may be tend to be taken for granted, and left to the deep woods. But hickories can be lovely shade trees in a large garden, spreading their branches as wide as tall. Many moths and butterflies rely on these trees, and squirrels and chipmunks relish the nuts. Unfortunately, they’re sometimes avoided because of the belief that nothing will grow under them. They do produce the toxin, juglone—as does their more notorious relative, walnut—but in smaller amounts. Some perennials are bothered by it, but the dry shade under a hickory may be worse for more of them than the traces of juglone in the soil. Take a look at this helpful PDF before you decide to plant under one. But do enjoy hickory’s pretty pinnate leaves as they turn a unique shade of intense gold in the fall.
Dogwood (Cornus florida)
The dogwood is most well known for its showy white bracts in spring, but red berries and fall leaves in shades of red to purple make it another more-than-one-reason-to-grow-it plant. Mine are particularly lovely this fall with some apricot tones mixed with the red. Dogwoods have had their difficulties with anthracnose, but they are still worth planting. Stressed trees are more likely to succumb, so see that your tree is sited well—they prefer the understory, not full sun—and watered during serious drought. And consider buying a resistant cultivar.
Fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus)
Fringe trees produce lots of fragrant white fringe as they bloom in the spring, and if you happen to have a female tree, you’ll later get blue fruits that blue jays, cardinals, and wild turkeys like. And, although I’ve never tried it, you can pickle the fruits or brine and eat them like olives (to which they are related). They fill the same part of the understory as dogwoods, but with an entirely different texture and fall leaf color. Fringe trees turn yellow.
Also worth considering:
Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) for it’s fine-textured branches, blue berries, and fresh scent—and because not everything in fall has to be red or orange! Junipers are a favorite of warblers, bluebirds, cedar waxwings, and many other birds. They prefer full sun, but will grow in part shade.
In the same vein, the fall color of an oak tree (Quercus spp.) is less bold but no less valuable to the overall beauty of the landscape. Depending on the species, you could see tan or yellow or the deepest shades of red and chestnut. Hundreds of species depend on oak trees for food and shelter—for wildlife, they are unbeatable.
Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is another tree that is superb for fall color. Some years the star-shaped leaves are neon shades of orange and red, some years the red is quite black with some yellow-green on the leaves less exposed to direct sun. If you have one of these next to your sidewalk, you’ll probably regret it—the spiny fruits are not fun to walk on. But as part of the canopy in a large woodland garden, it’s reliably eye-catching and thrilling each fall.
All of the above plants are currently growing in my garden at Oakleaf Woods. :)
Fall Color and Woodland Harvests, C. Ritchie Bell and Anne H. Lindsey, University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Gardening for the Birds | How to Create a Bird-Friendly Backyard, George Adams, Timber Press, 2013.
Bringing Nature Home | How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Douglas W. Tallamy, Timber Press, 2007.