Ellen has been gardening with and appreciating native plants for eleven years in north metro Atlanta. She is especially fond of native shrubs and trees but is willing to learn to love herbaceous plants as well. Helping others to see the beauty and versatility of Georgia's native plants, whether it be in the wild or in the garden, is both a passion and a compulsion -- just ask her kids! Ellen is an active member of the Georgia Native Plant Society and the Georgia Botanical Society. She uses her personal blog, usinggeorgianativeplants.blogspot.com, to share seasonal ideas and pictures about native plants in her area.

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The Colors of Fall  

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The Colors of Fall
by Ellen Honeycutt - posted 11/01/12

Parsley hawthorn

In this wonderful season of fall I spend much time soaking up the beautiful colors that nature reveals. I say "reveals" because it is the absence of the production of chlorophyll that creates the colors that were hiding in the leaves all year. Once the plant stops making chlorophyll (which is green), the other colors take over. I could not explain it any better than this:

Chlorophyll normally masks the yellow pigments known as xanthophylls and the orange pigments called carotenoids — both then become visible when the green chlorophyll is gone. These colors are present in the leaf throughout the growing season. Red and purple pigments come from anthocyanins.  In the fall anthocyanins are manufactured from the sugars that are trapped in the leaf. In most plants anthocyanins are typically not present during the growing season. Source

If you'd like to have some of this wonderful color, consider the following native trees to add to your garden:


Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) has good color and is fast growing.
Red maple (Acer rubrum) cultivars like 'October Glory' and hybrids like Acer x freemanii 'Autumn Blaze'. The species red maple is quite variable in color and may not even turn red.
Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) species and cultivars like 'Wildfire' and 'Red Rage'.
Dogwood (Cornus florida) has amazing red color; it is a small tree and needs part shade.
Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) has a range of fall color from pinks to purples.
Blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) is a family of shrubs; purchase cultivated plants and get both summer fruit and good fall color.

Scarlet oak




Sugar maple


Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is often overlooked until fall when the screaming fall color grabs everyone's attention.
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) has a great fall display as the tree changes from green to orange in a wave of color from top to bottom.


Hickory (Carya spp.) is the tall yellow color in almost every beautiful roadside display. The deep butter yellow leaves remain on the tree a long time, gradually fading to brown.
Smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) has both interesting flowers and good color.
Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is a large shrub that has much better color than red buckeye. The yellow drooping leaves make a handsome display for several weeks.
Southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum) turns a soft clear yellow, quite unlike the orange of northern sugar maple. It is at home as an understory tree in the woods around me.

Southern sugar maple



Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is not a tree that most people deliberately plant, but the kaleidoscope of colors on the same tree can make you appreciate the ones you have.
Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) has a range of fall color from pinks to purples.
Viburnum (Viburnum spp.) shrubs such as mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) and blackhaw viburnum (V. prunifolium) have wonderful fall colors.
Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is handsome year round thanks to fall color and peeling winter bark.
Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) is a shrub; look for cultivars like 'Merlot' and 'Henry's Garnet' for best color. 'Little Henry' is a dwarf form.

Blackhaw viburnum


But don't forget to include some greens. Having green trees like Pines, Hemlocks, and native Magnolias nearby provides an excellent foil for your fall colors. Now is a great time to plant trees in Georgia, so start planning your next fall today!



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