by Margaret Gratz

Every year, many Southerners make an annual fall foliage tour to New England to experience the vibrant color of the autumn season in all of its glory. But if travel is not on your agenda this fall, do not despair, for the fall color at home, even in the Deep South, is often quite spectacular. Many trees, native to the South and sporting colorful leaves and berries, refuse to be outdone by their Yankee cousins. These trees with the show-stopping foliage grow here naturally, are beneficial to many forms of wildlife and their beauty is unparalleled.

The fall, when the air is crisp and cool, is a perfect time to commune with nature. May I suggest a drive up or down a scenic parkway or an excursion to a nearby state park for a fall foliage tour? No doubt, you will come home inspired to plant trees. For spectacular fall color in your garden, try some of these native trees:

Flowering Dogwood - Cornus florida

The dogwood tree is planted primarily for its showy spring blossoms, but its fall color is equally beautiful. The red to burgundy leaves are eye-catching, and the waxy red fruit will attract a plethora of birds.

Dogwood trees prefer morning sun, partial shade and well-drained soil. Dogwood trees have a reputation for being temperamental at times and somewhat difficult to grow, but I have seen them growing and thriving under the most austere conditions. They also, in recent years, have been susceptible to anthracnose fungus, but trees that are well cared for and nurtured seem to be more resistant.

Regardless of its few problems, Cornus florida is so beautiful in the spring and fall, you will berate yourself for not planting dozens of this native species. Rest assured, your efforts will be rewarded.


Black Gum - Nyssa sylvatica

If there is one native tree that is underappreciated and frequently overlooked by gardeners, it is the black gum. One of the first trees to show its colors in the fall, this handsome tree takes center stage early in the season.

The black gum prefers well-drained, acid soil. (For damp areas, try the swamp tupelo, Nyssa biflora, or the water tupelo, Nyssa aquatica.) If planted in full sun, this tree will grow very fast. Bees visit the flowers in the spring, and the black fruit is relished by a menagerie of wildlife.

Once gardeners become tree savvy, they yearn to have this native tree. It is a beautiful specimen tree, and in the fall, arrayed in crimson, it will stop traffic.


Sweet Gum - Liquidambar styraciflua

When this writer was a school girl in a small Southern town, she and her school chums would gather sweet gum balls and spray paint them either silver or gold. We would then hang these shiny orbs on the classroom Christmas tree. To our unsophisticated eyes, this forlorn, scraggly, little cedar tree was magically transformed into a Christmas tree of remarkable beauty.

Ah, but that was long ago, and now tidy gardeners vehemently express their disdain for sweet gum trees and their spiny fruit. We have all heard horror stories about gardeners stepping on a sweet gum ball and breaking arms, legs, etc. But this tree is hazardous only to the clumsy or unwary, and in the fall you will wish you had one. When the star-shaped leaves of the sweet gum tree turn orange, red, burgundy and yellow, all on the same tree, it is hard to find fault with this native tree.

The sweet gum tree will valiantly grow just about anywhere, even in damp, compacted soil. It grows very fast and is very hardy.

To appease the fastidious gardeners in our midst, there are now sweet gum hybrids that do not produce the distinctive sweet gum balls; subsequently, no one breaks a leg at the garden party. (If they do, they can only blame the champagne!) However, if you are a purist, plant a sweet gum tree that produces fruit. Should you fall, not from the fruit but on hard times, there will always be sweet gum balls to spray paint, and the Christmas tree will not go unadorned. When it comes to sweet gum trees, I prefer to live dangerously.


Red Maple - Acer rubrum

We may not tap maple trees to collect sap as they do in cold Vermont, but we do have maple trees, and the fall color of these trees surely must rival the maples of more Northern climes.

Acer rubrum is a very dependable volunteer and tries valiantly to reforest disturbed land. This native tree is very adaptable and will grow in just about any soil. It will even tolerate a little urban pollution.

There are numerous hybrids available, and there are many maples available at garden centers that really do not appreciate the South. If at all possible, plant a real Acer rubrum. It grows vigorously, loves Dixie, and its fall color will never disappoint. A large, venerable old maple, ablaze with color in autumn, is truly awe inspiring.


Southern Sugar Maple - Acer barbatum

There are sugar maples in the South. Granted, they are a little bit different and not as prolific as the sugar maples found in New England, but on wooded slopes, in rich, well-drained soil, this tree can occasionally be found.

The leaves of this relatively small tree look very much like the traditional maple leaf that adorns the Canadian flag, and every fall this tree does what maple trees are famous for — it turns a shimmering gold, even in the dark of a primeval forest.

If you have suitable habitat, and many Southern gardeners do, this native maple tree will feel right at home.



Shagbark Hickory - Carya ovata

There are 12 species of hickory that grow in North America, but if you only have one hickory growing on your property, consider yourself lucky. The burnished, tawny gold of the leaves in autumn set against the backdrop of an azure sky is worthy of an ode.

Hickory trees are slow growing but long lived, and you may have to search to find one to plant. Hickory trees grow well in both wet and dry areas.

Hickory trees are seldom planted as specimen trees or recommended by landscape designers, but do not let that deter you from planting one. Hickory trees produce lots of nuts that provide food for a host of animals; the leaves feed caterpillars that grow into luna moths; and the fall color is worth the wait. If you are a senior citizen, plant hickories for the next generation.

Fall is a wonderful time of year to admire the beauty of our woodlands and the vivid colors of the leaves of our native trees. This year, take a fall foliage tour close to home. Surely you will be inspired by the wonders of nature and the extraordinary fall color of our indigenous trees. This fall, plant a tree, and for fall color, go native.


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October Articles:

Fall Color - Go Native
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How to: Dividing Perennials