One of the great things about living in this area is the fall color. Even if you don’t have the chance to get up on the Skyline Drive, there are many plants you can add to your property to bring the color closer to home.
The maples are the undisputed kings of fall color among trees. The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) explodes in yellow, orange or red tones, or perhaps even a combination of all three. Sugar maples are not common forest trees in Albemarle County, but if you plant one, you will probably get many seedlings. ‘Legacy’ is a good cultivar, with thick, waxy-textured leaves, rapid growth and excellent heat tolerance. The red maple (A. rubrum) does not get its name from the color of its fall foliage, but rather the color of the flowers that emerge in early spring. In the wild, red maples often turn yellow in the fall, although some trees do go to orange or red. If you want to be assured of getting a certain color, look for the cultivars ‘October Glory’ and ‘Red Sunset,’ with orange-red to red foliage. Of course, picking out the tree at the garden center when it’s showing autumn hues is the best way to guarantee getting the right color. Plus, trees with turning leaves are going dormant, and that’s the best time to plant. And don’t forget the Japanese maples (A. palmatum) for their fall show. Even those with burgundy foliage throughout the summer will put on brighter colors in the fall, and their display usually persists into November.
A little-known tree with spectacular fall color is the sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). You might have heard the name of this azalea relative in connection with its excellent honey. Sourwoods are very scarce in these parts, but become more common in southern Virginia. Its leaves turn red, purple and yellow in the fall and form a nice backdrop to the persisting fruit capsules. Sourwoods are not the easiest plants to grow in a nursery, but you should expect success with a small, container-grown specimen. One caveat with regard to sourwoods: in the late summer they are susceptible to the fall webworm, a caterpillar that will consume much of the foliage. It’s a native bug eating a native plant, so some say just let nature take its course, since the damage is not fatal. However, if the worms eat the foliage, and you’re waiting for fall color … well, you get the picture. If I had one, I would remove the webs with a rake or broom and send the caterpillars to insect heaven.
If you don’t have room for trees in your landscape, there are also some shrubs that provide good fall color. Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is generally grown for its white flowers in late spring, but is also desirable for the burgundy tints to the leathery foliage in fall. These tend to hang onto the shrub into the early winter, extending the season of interest.
The viburnums are a large genus of attractive landscape plants, but only a few provide fall color. The possum haw (Viburnum nudum) is native to wetter areas, but does fine in average conditions. It can reach 10 feet, but the cultivars such as ‘Winterthur’ usually top out at six feet. The leaves turn burgundy and provide a nice backdrop to the berries, which go from cream to pink to dark blue as they ripen. Another native is the maple-leaved viburnum (V. acerifolium), common in drier piedmont woods. It too sports blue-black berries in the fall, but the pale pink foliage is the real hit. It’s one of the few shrubs that develop good color even in the shade. You won’t find this viburnum at many nurseries, but a few native plant specialists do carry it.
Everyone knows about hollies for fall and winter color, but there is another group of shrubs grown primarily for showy berries in autumn, the beautyberries. This genus, Callicarpa, has pinkish flowers that are not terribly showy, but in late summer they turn a spectacular fluorescent purple. The native species, C. americana, is a somewhat gangly, open shrub that looks best in a woodland setting. There are several Asian species that are tidier in appearance and look better in more formal garden situations. In my observation, most beautyberries are pretty weedy, but I have not seen them on invasive plant lists. If you find the purple fruits a bit too much for your taste, look for the various cultivars that have white or pink berries, although I consider these a bit wimpy. To each, his own. There are also a couple of vines that provide great fall color, but I would definitely not plant one of these and would be cautious with the other. The first is poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), and I don’t think I need to elaborate on why I wouldn’t plant it. Still, what if it shows up on your property unbidden? Then it becomes a matter of location. If it’s in the back corner of your lot and not bothering anyone, I’d consider leaving it. It does turn wonderful shades of red and yellow in the fall, and the white berries are enjoyed by birds. But those berries can turn into more plants, so you’ll need to keep an eye on things.
The other showy vine is Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia. Fall color is at least as good as poison ivy, and there’s no worry about itchy skin. Virginia creeper will clamber up and cling to about any surface, and this aggressive nature is its only major drawback. Again, like poison ivy, maybe it’s best in the back forty or covering a tumble-down shed.
And don’t forget to try some interesting combinations with these plants. I have a grouping of beautyberry and two varieties of deciduous holly, giving me purple, orange and red berries all intermingled. Maybe not to everyone’s taste, but I love it!