Gardens

Best trees for autumn color

Showstopping trees for a stunning fall display – experts share their favorites

crab apple branch with ripening fruits in autumn
(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

We’ve rounded up the best trees for autumn color, with recommendations from garden experts for varieties you can enjoy in your garden. After all, a key part of garden planning – and planting – is to make sure your outside space holds plenty of garden ideas for year-round interest.

Many of the best trees for autumn color feature striking foliage in dramatic fiery shades, but we also have some great autumn trees with berries or fruit. These have the added advantage of attracting a wide variety of fruit-eating birds and other wildlife, continuing the circle of life as your garden prepares for winter.

Trees play a vital role in a garden for all seasons, as gardening writer and photographer Leigh Clapp explains, ‘Whether serving as a backdrop for annuals, bulbs and perennials that ebb and flow with the seasons, or combined for shape and form on their own, trees bring drama, height, architectural interest and structure to a landscape.’ 

Best trees for autumn color

It's worth knowing that the best trees for autumn color also offer continuing garden privacy – but if you think they all need a huge garden, think again, because there are good options for smaller spaces and container-grown trees too. 

The best time to plant trees in the garden is in the winter months, from November to March, depending on your local climate. In general though, if you plant before your tree before Christmas it will establish better as the soil is warmer. 

Best trees for autumn leaves

acer leaves in full autumn color for the garden

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Change in leaf color is a real piece of natural magic that happens as deciduous plants slow their metabolism. The chlorophyll in leaves keeps them green through spring and summer. Shorter days and cooler temperatures trigger a gradual reduction in chlorophyll production and the other color pigments present in the foliage are revealed. In fall, trees take back nutrients from the foliage and deposit hard-to-eliminate waste products inside the leaves before they are shed. 

Matt Hartline, ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and partner at Bill Miller & Associates – says that another noteworthy factor affecting a tree’s fall colors is the temperature fluctuations from daytime to evening time. 

‘Years with dramatic fluctuations from warm days to cold nights yield the best autumn foliage,’ he explains. ‘The temperature fluctuations influence the rate at which sugars are drawn out of the leaves.’ 

Two of his favorite trees for autumn color are Nyssa sylvatica and Liquidambar styraciflua, pictured below. 

autumn colours of Nyssa sylvatica and Liquidambar styraciflua in the garden

Nyssa sylvatica and Liquidambar styraciflua

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Nyssa sylvatica – also known as the Pepperidge tree, Tupelo, Black Tupelo, Black Gum

Nyssa sylvatica has a wide native range from the eastern US, all the way from Florida to Canada and is important for wildlife, pollinating insects, and birds. The form of their canopies tends to be broad spreading in maturity, with striking horizontal layers formed by long lateral branches. 

Matt Hartline adds, ‘Pepperidge trees present gorgeous, albeit fleeting, crimson colored autumn foliage. Relish the short lived treat to catch one of these beauties at peak autumn foliage. They look lovely when planted as a copse to simulate a natural looking grove, but be sure to plant in full sun for these rather slow-growing trees to work their magic.'

Liquidambar styraciflua American Sweetgum

The star shaped Sweetgum leaves populate large mature trees capable of attaining in excess of 100 foot-tall canopies. In autumn, an array of colors are displayed, all on a single specimen. 

‘Purples, oranges, reds and yellows are a dazzling source of eye candy. A multitude of hybridized cultivars are available in commerce to hone in on more precise hues, but the standard species is a reliable performer,‘ says Matt Hartline. ‘Give them lots of room to grow and enjoy the show!’

Ginkgo Biloba The Maidenhair tree

A resilient and interesting tree, Ginkgo’s unique fan shaped leaves boast a bright uniform golden hue. Their canopies have a coarse texture when growing freely. They can pruned to achieve a multitude of forms. ‘Slow growing but worth the payoff,’ says Matt Hartline, adding, ‘if you didn’t plant one ten years ago… there’s no time like the present. And for smaller spaces (front yards, terraces, foundation beds) there is a litany of ornamental species to choose from that won’t overwhelm.’

Japanese Stewartia – Stewartia Psuedocamila 

These trees are a pleaser 365 days a year. They have pretty, camellia-like flowers in the summer, and just when you think they’ve given you everything you could wish for in a specimen tree, they get better when the leaves turn fire-engine red.

Lirodendron tulipifera - tulip tree

The tulip tree (below) needs room to grow and spread, making it an ideal choice as a specimen tree to sit under and enjoy its splendour through the seasons. 

Lirodendron tulipifera tulip tree in autumn with curved tree seat

Lirodendron tulipifera - tulip tree

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Quercus Paulstris – Pin Oak

The pin oak needs, fertile, well-drained moist soil and prefers full sun or partial shade. It has crimson leaves that hold well into winter and grows to a height and spread of 45ft x 24ft.

Cornus florida – flowering dogwood

This is a good choice for smaller gardens, with a height and spread of  12ft x 9ft. It prefers clay, loam and sandy soils and thrives in full sun or partial shade. Beautiful white flowers in summer are followed by red and purple leaves in autumn.

Maples for autumn color

Freeman maple in full autumn color

(Image credit: Mary Jane Duford)

No one could overlook maples, or Acers when thinking about the best trees for autumn color. These trees are invaluable for their vibrant autumn colour of flaming golds and reds.

There is a huge range of varieties for sun or part shade, the more acid the soil and sunnier the aspect the better the colour, but there are ones that are tolerant of most soil types as long as it is fertile. Smaller varieties are lovely in containers, but make sure you protect their delicate foliage from strong winds. 

Who better to recommend her favorite maple varieties for fall color, than gardening expert Mary Jane Duford , who says: ‘I live in Canada where we are wild about Maple trees (especially the types with red leaves in the fall!) Here are three of my favorites for fall color, including some selected cultivars that are well-suited to the home landscape.'

Acer rubrum – red maple 

The red maple is a classic tree for fall color. Red Maple trees grow best in nutrient-rich well-drained soil, but are tolerant of poorer soils. While these trees need regular watering at first, they tend to become tolerant to drought and are generally low-maintenance trees for homeowners. Red Maples grow best in full sun, but are also tolerant of partial sun to partial shade.

Red Maples are medium-large trees that are known to be both fast-growing and cold-hardy. Red Maples in the wild commonly grow to over 100 feet, but most horticultural cultivars have a shorter mature height. The following cultivars are suitable for the home landscape, either as backyard shade trees or in the front yard for stunning fall curb appeal.

‘October Glory’ is a cultivar of Red Maple known for its stunning orange-red fall color.

‘Red Sunset’ has a rounded pyramidal shape. This modern introduction is very cold hardy, and can be grown in Zones 3-9.

‘Summer Red’ is a compact cultivar suitable for small yards. What make it special is that the leaves grow as a burgundy-red color in spring-summer, before maturing to yellow-orange-purple in autumn.

Acer × freemanii – Freeman Maple 

The Freeman Maple picture above, is another spectacular choice for a autumn-interest landscaping tree. Freeman Maple is a hybrid of Red Maple (Acer rubrum) and Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum). The fall foliage of the best cultivars retains the striking red of the Red Maple along with shades of yellow and orange reminiscent of the Silver Maple. 

Freeman Maples are very low-maintenance for homeowners once established. The fall color is downright magical in terms of curb appeal and the fallen leaves make excellent leaf mold. 

Here are some lovely varieties of Freeman Maple to consider for fantastic fall foliage:

‘Autumn Blaze’ is known for its vibrant red autumn leaves. This variety thrives in Zones 3-8. 

‘Firefall’ is a modern introduction with striking orange-red autumn leaves. 

‘Scarlet Sentinel’ is a cultivar of Freeman Maple with a compact form. The fall color of this variety is typically a bronze orange color, sometimes deepening to scarlet red. 

Sugar Maple

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) is an outstanding tree for fall color on larger properties. These trees are just as well known for their brightly-colored fall foliage as they are for their delicious maple syrup. Here are some excellent cultivars for the home landscape.

‘Green Mountain’ is a quick-growing Sugar Maple that is naturally resistant to disease and tolerant of heat.

'Fall Fiesta’ is a large Sugar Maple with stunning fall foliage, hardy in Zones 3-8. 

‘Legacy’ is a smaller Sugar Maple cultivar perfect for medium-sized yards. These trees are hardy in Zones 4-8.

Trees for berries and fruit

Sorbus cashmiriana in full autumn color for the garden

(Image credit: Trees Direct)

Sorbus Cashmiriana – Kashmir Rowan

Diana Beamish, who together with her husband has owned and run Trees Direct for more than 20 years, says 'My all time favourite tree for autumn colour is Sorbus Cashmiriana. It's also known as the Kashmir rowan where it grows wild. It's happy on most well-drained soils, and tolerates full sun or semi-shade. Its striking foliage and berries make it an autumn stunner, but it looks just as pretty in blossom in the early summer - a good year-round choice.' 

Sorbus Cashmiriana, pictured above is a great choice for smaller spaces. The large berries outlast the bright autumn foliage. 

Crataegus prunifolia – Flowering Thorn

The classic hedgerow tree, with a bushy habit, the flowering thorn is a favorite with birds too, it thrives on chalk, clay loam and sandy soils. Glorious red and orange foliage and red berries, follow delicate white flowers in late spring / early summer

Crab apple malus evereste in fruit in autumn

(Image credit: Leigh Clapp)

Malus Evereste – Crab apple  

Crab apples have probably the best of all the winter fruits, and along with their pretty spring blossom have great versatility due to the range of sizes available. For a larger space you can enjoy the spring flowers and autumn fruit of rows of crab apples, maybe lining a drive or dotted across a lawn. Malus Evereste (pictured above) has a lot to recommend it with pretty white flowers in spring that open from scarlet buds and fade to pink and these glossy fruits flushed with red, orange and yellow. 

There are many small varieties that are ideal for smaller spaces, courtyards or even containers, such as Malus ‘Red Jade’ or M. toringo subs. sargentii. Birds generally prefer the smaller crab apples.

There are as many different trees for autumn color as there are reasons to celebrate this most dramatic season in the garden. We've picked out our top choices, but there are plenty more to enjoy and discover. Do your research and seek advice from your supplier to check a variety's suitability for the position and conditions before you pick up a spade to start planting.  

Then prepare for a sensational seasonal show for many years to come. 

Karen Darlow
Karen Darlow

I'm the homes editor of Period Living magazine and an experienced writer on interiors and gardens. I've also moved house quite a few times – totting up 10 homes in 12 years during a particularly nomadic time in my life. I like to think that makes me quite the homes expert, or at least very experienced and with a clear idea of what I like and don't like in a home. 

I love visiting and writing about old houses for Homes & Gardens' sister magazine Period Living and working with photographers to capture all kinds of historic properties. It's inspiring to talk to people about their traditional homes and to hear the stories behind their furnishing and decorating choices. And by the time I've finished an interview with a homeowner I've always got a handful of new ideas to try in my own house, as well as plenty of good stories for the magazine. It's the perfect work-life balance.