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The Late, Late Show: Plants with Great Fall Color

Spring and summer flowers provide colorful combinations, but once fall arrives there’s fabulous foliage to enjoy. Bright, sunny days and cool nights produce some of the most brilliant reds, oranges and purples. Many gardens are in their fall glory right now. They can offer something we seldom find in spring: a wealth of interesting berries and ornamental seed heads. Some offer sensational scents. Katsura tree, for example, is coveted for its yellow fall color, but that’s not its only glory. The leaves have a distinctive cotton-candy fragrance in autumn.

Viburnums are medium-sized to tall shrubs that offer multi-season interest, an important factor when choosing any plant. In late spring and early summer, they’re covered with blooms that are followed by beautiful berries. Some varieties have honey-scented snowball-like flowers. When fall arrives, their leaves put on a show with shades of green, red or yellow. Choosing plants that perform for more than one season is key to getting the most out of the garden.

At this time of year, the plants in many landscapes are magnets for migrating birds as well. Trees and shrubs that provide energy-rich fruits, such as dogwoods, spicebush and sassafras, attract an assortment of song birds.

When we select vines, shrubs, trees and grasses for their late-season appeal they help extend the garden’s good looks and give one last hurrah before winter sets in. As baseball catcher Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” Here are a few unusual and underused plants for the garden.

Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)

This is one of those trees that has the most spectacular glossy orange-to-red fall color. Another common name for black tupelo is “sour gum.” The tree, which is slow-growing, can reach 30-40’ tall and 25-35’ wide. Planted in full sun, black tupelo can be used as a shade tree, a street tree and as a focal point in a rain garden. It produces small fruits that mature to a dark blue and are attractive to birds and wildlife. It’s a tree that you don’t often see, but makes a great addition to the home garden.

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

By October, the heart-shaped leaves on redbud turn beautiful shades of yellow and chartreuse. In nature, redbuds grow at the edge of the woods under taller shade trees. Their bright pink flowers light up the garden in spring and are usually abuzz with many small native bees and other pollinators. This small tree, which grows about 15’ tall and 10’ wide, is a good choice for shrub borders and when it’s used in groupings.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma)

This shrub is named for its showy summer-to-fall display. In July, it’s heavily sprinkled with small pinkish-lavender flowers. By fall, a profusion of lilac-violet berries cover the stems that arch down to the ground like a waterfall. The chartreuse-yellow leaves make a great contrast with the berries, too. It’s one of the best ornamental fruiting shrubs around and is quite eye catching especially in autumn.

Big Bluestem Grass (Andropogon gerardii) 

This tall grass once covered prairies across the Midwest. Its common name, “turkey foot,” is a nod to the 3-parted, fingerlike flower clusters. This grass comes into its own in late summer and fall with blue-green leaves that are tinged with red. After a frost, the leaves become a reddish-bronze with lavender tones, while the seed heads turn a hazy purple. This is an ornamental native grass that can be used in perennial borders or massed in a prairie-like garden along with coneflowers and other pollinator-friendly flowers.

Mountain Hydrangea (Hydrangea serrata)

Hydrangeas are the darlings of designers because of their fabulous flowers, which look good in summer and often last into winter. This particular hydrangea has burgundy-infused leaves. They create an effective backdrop for flowers that start out ivory, age to pink, and become red to maroon through late summer into fall. They’re cool plants that tend to be smaller than some of the giant panicle hydrangeas used in many home landscapes.