Flashy fall foliage: Spice up landscaping with brilliant colors


Brace yourself — we're about to debunk one of life's most revered proverbs. It's long been said that money can't buy happiness.

That's not necessarily true because fall color makes us happy, and we can buy it.

Garden centers sell happiness-inducing trees and shrubs that develop spectacular autumn colors for our home landscapes.

At first glance, when leaf colors start changing, we often think of cooler temperatures that arrive about the same time. But temperature isn't the first trigger of fall color — shorter days are. Plants sense the decreasing daylength and begin preparing for winter. Green chlorophyll in leaves breaks down, revealing pigments that were previously masked, mostly yellow and gold.

Besides the uncovering of yellow tones, which accounts for the golden fall color of some trees and shrubs, other types go a step farther and produce red, orange and scarlet colors by their leaf chemistry. When night temperatures drop below about 45 degrees F., sugars are trapped within these leaves and chemical reactions convert the sugars into red and purple pigments.

The most spectacular fall colors follow a succession of warm, sunny days and cool, crisp, non-freezing nights. Frost isn't needed and does more harm than good because it makes leaves drop faster, ending the show.

New landscapes can be planned to include fall color, and established plantings usually have room to add shrubs or small-scale trees that light up the yard in autumn.

Here are some well-adapted favorites.


• Winged euonymus burning bush is one of the most eye-catching fall shrubs, becoming bright scarlet with overtones of hot pink. The original species is a large, rounded shrub easily becoming eight to ten feet high and wide. Compact or dwarf burning bush reaches six feet high and wide.

• American viburnum cranberrybush, also known as highbush cranberry, develops rich tones varying from purplish red to golden scarlet on large rounded shrubs eight to ten feet high and wide. Smaller cultivars in the viburnum group mature at about five or six feet high.

• Sumac is a familiar shrub, often growing in natural clumps along roadsides and at the edges of wooded areas with its bright scarlet or red-orange foliage. Tiger Eyes sumac is a newer cultivar gaining wide popularity with its bright yellow summer foliage and red-orange autumn color.

• Aronia, also called black chokeberry, develops rich mahogany or wine-red color on a four to five-foot-high shrub. Berries are edible and high in healthy antioxidants.

• Barberry fall colors range from bright red to deep orange from named cultivars like Carousel, Rosy Glow and dozens more with heights ranging from two to four feet.

Small-scale trees

• Flame amur maple is a graceful 20-foot tree with eye-catching orange-scarlet fall foliage. It's perfect for a privacy screening tree.

• Hot Wings tatarian maple develops red-yellow color on a 20-foot tree.

• Amelanchier Juneberry serves double-duty with edible fruit plus red-orange fall color on a shrubby tree up to 15-feet high.

• Quaking aspen and Prairie Gold aspen add bright yellow to the landscape plus gentle rustling of leaves on 20-foot low-branched trees perfect for screening.

• Prairie Horizon alder turns a rich, golden yellow with a height of 20 feet.

Don Kinzler, a lifelong gardener, worked as an NDSU Extension horticulturist and owned Kinzler's Greenhouse in Fargo. Readers can reach him at forumgrowingtogether@hotmail.com.

He also blogs at " target="_blank">growingtogether.areavoices.com.