When a customer at our Zone 5 nursery asks, “Does it bloom all year,” I smile and answer, “no, not in January or February.” We all want color in our gardens 24/7 all year. While we can’t get that in the North, we can get red in our gardens long into October.
The red in plants comes from the pigment anthocyanin. Anthocyanin makes red in fruits such as raspberries, cherries, apples, crabapples and more. So parts of some plants are red without regard to the season. Others flame only in fall.
During the summer, chlorophyll (the green pigment in leaves) by the process of photosynthesis, changes sunlight, carbon dioxide and water into sugars that travel from leaves throughout the plant to give it energy. As days wane and we get frosts, nature morphs the leaves of some trees, shrubs and perennials from green to all manner of reds. Reduced daylight and decreased temperatures trigger the growth of cells where the stems of leaves attach to the branch, like closing the door on summer. This process is called leaf abscission. Abscission suffocates green-creating chlorophyll and strangles the flow of sugars out of the leaves. An abundance of sugars trapped in leaves promotes the production of anthocyanin. The red color screens foliage from damaging UV rays, giving plants added time to absorb the sugars into roots for winter.
Shrubs and Short Trees
Fall’s flaming red leaves of burning bush (Euonymus alatus; Zones 4 to 8) inspire American homeowners to spend more than $38 million every year to buy this Asian native. It grows slowly but in nearly any conditions, sun to part shade and most soils, reaching 20 feet tall with a flat, wide top. You can prune it into a small tree. Planting it in a line makes a stunning hedge, border or screen. Burning bush reseeds and can be invasive. The selection ‘Compactus’ grows only a bit shorter than the species.
Burning bush’s native American cousin Eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus; Zones 3 to 7) grows quickly to a large shrub or small tree up to 20 feet tall and 25 feet wide. It thrives in sun to part shade and most any soil. From September to November its pulsating pink capsules open to expose red fruit. These attract cardinals, bluebirds, northern flickers and catbirds to dinner. We received Eastern wahoo by mistake from a wholesale grower and failed to appreciate it until we saw the fruits. Now it’s a keeper.
With nearly 200 species of Viburnum, highbush cranberry is a favorite. (Viburnum trilobum syn. V. opulus var. americanum, Zones 2 to 7) It sports not only rich red fruit from August through winter, but also purple-to-red foliage in fall for a brilliant display. Anthocyanin creates purple when sap is basic with a high pH and red when sap is acidic with a low pH. In spring the persistent, sweet-tart fruits feed cardinals, mockingbirds and cedar waxwings. It hosts the caterpillar of the spring azure butterfly. In June, snowy white lacecap flowers bloom to repeat the cycle from flower to fruit. It grows 10 feet tall with equal spread in sun to part shade in moist to moist well-drained soil. Multi-stemmed highbush cranberry makes an exceptional four season hedge, screen or backdrop.
Another viburnum, arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum, Zones 4 to 8) bears clusters of medium blue berries in summer, persisting into winter. In fall its toothed foliage turns jewel-toned wine. Arrowwood thrives in moist soil but easily grows in any soil and sun to part shade. Native Americans fashioned arrows from its 12-foot-tall, straight-as-an-arrow stems. Like its relative highbush cranberry, it hosts spring azure butterfly caterpillars and its fruit feeds mockingbirds, thrashers, cardinals, cedar waxwings and bluebirds. In spring, creamy white flat-topped cymes bloom for two weeks. Morton Arboretum’s selection, ‘Morton,’ reliably shifts to bright red fall foliage.
One of the best shrubs for October red, red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’, Zones 4 to 9) suckers to fill a garden or provide extras to move about or share. Although the books say it grows in sun in any soil, I confess that I killed one by utter and complete neglect. I planted it in dry soil and never watered it. Come September the leaves transmute to ruby. Michael Dirr considers the color “equal to and perhaps superior to Euonymus alatus.” This is widely recommended as a native alternative to burning bush. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society awarded red chokeberry a Gold Medal. Its plentiful fruits, matching the ruby of the foliage, last from early fall into winter. Wandering roots make it a good candidate for a background hedge or specimen. Meadowlarks, thrashers, catbirds and cedar waxwings harvest them. Clusters of dainty white flowers bloom in spring.
Many-flowered cotoneaster (Cotoneaster multiflorus, Zones 3 to 7) commands a large space, expanding up to 15 feet wide with a similar height, resembling a colossal mound. Once established it grows rapidly. Flowers smother its arching, fountain-like branches in spring and early summer. It is named “many-flowered,” after all. Cardinal-colored fruits in clusters, one after another, descend the entire length of the branches from September through October. The fruit stands out against the gray-blue leaves. In a sunny location with well-drained soil it is an easy-care shrub.
Apple serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora, Zones 4 to 9) is a circa 1870 hybrid of A. arborea (downy serviceberry) and A. laevis (Allegheny serviceberry). A fast growing shrub or small multi-stemmed tree, it stands up to 25 feet with equal width and grows in sun to part shade in moist to moist well-drained soil. After flowering in spring it produces tasty fruit in June, hence another common name, Juneberry. Goldfinches, titmice, thrashers, blue jays, chickadees, cardinals and robins all dine on the fruit. The Missouri Botanical Garden granted the cultivar ‘Autumn Brilliance’ a Plant of Merit award.
Only one hydrangea supplies fall color, oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia, Zones 5 to 9). In early October burgundy-purple tinges the leathery leaves. As fall advances the leaves turn to wine. When young this 4-to-6-foot-tall and wide shrub needs protection from desiccating winter winds and marauding rabbits that chow down on the stems and prevent flowers for the next season. Both sterile and fertile flowers bloom on nearly 1-foot-long panicles of white to pink in summer. Flowers of the selections ‘Harmony’, ‘Snowflake’ and ‘Snow Queen’ are showier than those of the species. Grow this in sun with a bit of shade in moist well-drained soil as a specimen or in a border mixed with perennials and shrubs.
Evergreen Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium, Zones 5 to 9) is often mistaken for a holly. Its screaming yellow flowers in spring and early summer morph into blue fruit on crimson stems. The berries feed grouse, pheasants, robins, waxwings, juncos, towhees and sparrows. Then the foliage turns tomato red in fall. We grow it adjacent to the east side of the house to give this 5-foot-tall Pacific Northwest native afternoon shade and protection from Midwest winters. The short cultivar ‘Apollo’ received England’s Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.
Red maple is autumn’s icon. This one is Acer rubrum ‘October Glory.’
Iconic red maple (Acer rubrum, Zones 4 to 9), with glowing scarlet leaves, symbolizes fall. Native to most of the U.S. east of the Mississippi, homeowners plant it all over the country. Pendulous clusters of showy red flowers bud out in spring before leaves emerge.
Fast growing to 40 to 60 feet tall with a 45 foot spread and rounded crown it prefers sun and slightly acidic soil but takes a wide range of soil conditions. Excellent as a specimen or street tree, it is, however, intolerant of heavy pollution. The leaves are toxic to cattle and horses. Cardinals, grouse, bobwhites, nuthatches, finches and grosbeaks feed on the samaras. Nurseries sell numerous cultivars of this popular tree, many selected for reliable fall color.
Fast growing but long lived, northern red oak (Quercus rubra, Zones 4 to 9) makes a magnificent shade tree, 80 feet tall with a similar spread. Leaves color in October to crimson, orange or russet and persist on the tree into winter. Native to nearly the entire eastern half of North America, red oak prefers moist well-drained to well-drained, acidic soil and sun. It is susceptible to oak wilt disease and gypsy moths. Bobwhites, woodpeckers, blue jays, tufted titmice, white-breasted nuthatches, sapsuckers, quails, ruffed grouse and turkeys all eat the acorns.
October daphne’s strawberry blooms reflect its pink leaf frame.
Deep burgundy succulent foliage makes dragon’s blood sedum one of the best fall ground covers.
Vines can be used for fall decorations. Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Zones 3 to 9) clambers up trees, walls, fences, rock piles or whatnot, attaching itself by tendrils tipped with adhesive discs. Very versatile, it grows in sun or shade and any soil. In late summer its small, faded flowers become decorative fruit clusters of deep, glaucous blue on red pedicels, food for mockingbirds, bluebirds, cardinals, woodpeckers and turkeys. But the fruit is toxic to people. In autumn Virginia creeper’s leaves turn radiant, steal-your-heart red before falling from the vine.
The leaves of several sedums transform to pale red or a deeper red in fall. All grow in sun in well-drained soil. October daphne (Sedum sieboldii, Zones 3 to 9) only blooms in October and November with its strawberry-colored flowers and fleshy gray-green foliage edged with pink. The Elisabeth Carey Miller Botanical Garden justifiably chose October daphne as a Great Plant Pick. Chinese sedum (Sedum tetractinum, Zones 4 to 8) spreads its flat, round leaves a full 1 foot wide but reaches only 3 inches tall. In fall the leaves turn bronze-coral. Also short, dragon’s blood sedum (Sedum spurium ‘Coccineum’, Zones 3 to 9) quickly forms a mat 2 feet across. In summer, its succulent bronze-green leaves complement clusters of crimson flowers. In fall the evergreen foliage shifts to deep burgundy.
Pigsqueak (Bergenia cordifolia, Zones 3 to 8) is a bit tricky to coax into its bright pink bloom in spring. Garden greats William Robinson (1838-1935) and Gertrude Jekyll (1843 – 1932) both praised pigsqueak for its leaves. Robinson proclaimed that, “no plant … affords a greater leaf-beauty in autumn and winter.” Gertrude Jekyll placed it in her designs as a “setting of solid leaves,” as edging between shrubs and grass and grouped in pots. Reddish bronze tints the leaves in fall. It grows in sun to part shade in moist well-drained soil. In December the sturdy, succulent leaves make a good foil for conifer boughs in arrangements.
The leaves of several perennial geraniums also morph red in October. ‘Johnson’s Blue’ leaves (Geranium x ‘Johnson’s Blue’, Zones 3 to 8) are the best with hot cherry red on their deeply incised leaves. A winner of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit, it blooms for much of the summer. Bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum, Zones 4 to 8) was named for the red of its autumn leaves. Our native geranium, American cranesbill (Geranium maculatum, Zones 3 to 8), grows in woodland edges and moist to moist well-drained soil. It too bears showy cherry-colored leaves in fall.
Many grasses peak in fall. Blades of Japanese blood grass (Imperata cylindrical, Zones 4 to 9) start out in summer with the top garnet red and the bottom green. As summer progresses so does the red. By fall the entire blade is deep burgundy. Shippers introduced this grass to the U.S. as packing material in the early 1900s. In warmer climates it seeds and becomes invasive causing several states and the USDA to regulate its sale. The selection ‘Red Baron’ syn. ‘Rubra’ has never gone to seed in our Zone 5 garden. Its foliage is a deeper red than the species.
October reds magically close out the gardening season. Thanks to nature’s concentration of sugar, fall finishes with a bling.
From State-by-State Gardening October 2012.
Story photography by Mary Orban Dalton. Header photo by F. D. Richards.
Betty Adelman is the owner of the award-winning Heritage Flower Farm, Mukwonago, WI, a nursery specializing in ornamental heirloom plants.