8 of The Best Shrubs to Plant For Fall Color

Published on September 27th 2020
Witch Hazel
Autumn would not be half as cozy without red-orange maple leaves, bright yellow birch or the deep russet of oaks. But it isn't just the trees we've got to thank for Autumn's golden glow. Shrubs can also brighten our landscape in rich sunset tones, as well as creams and warm pinks, and are worth considering if you want a garden that looks just as vibrant in fall as it does in summer.
Here are 8 shrubs to plant for a fiery display


© Mary Schier
In a northern climate, one of my favorite fall shrubs is the Hydrangea. Blooming starts in late July or August, but the plant holds on to its brazen blossoms for months. Depending on the variety (and there are dozens of varieties), the flowers start off cream, then flush to pink, then deep red, before ending the season with a large, dried, tan flower head that can be harvested for use in seasonal decorations.
Vanilla Strawberry (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Renhy’) Hydrangea is a stunner in fall. It likes full sun and can grow 6 to 7 feet tall, making it a great back-of-the-border plant. If you don’t pick the blooms for decorations, leave them on the plant until early spring. Snow and hoar frost glisten when settled on the petals, adding winter interest to your landscape. Gardeners in USDA Zone 5 or warmer may also want to plant Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), which milky white flowers and leaves that turn a deep burgundy in fall.

Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. _Americanum)

High Bush Cranberry
© Mary Schier
Hydrangeas are not the only shrub to set your garden ablaze come fall. Highbush Cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. Americanum) is a North American native plant providing four-season interest. In fall, its leaves turn red and orange and its red berries attract birds. (They also look beautiful dusted with snow later in the year.)

Serviceberry (Amelanchier)

Service Berry
© Bailey Nurseries
Another native shrub that shines in fall is Serviceberry (Amelanchier). Its leaves turn a fiery color in October. The cultivar ‘Autumn Brilliance’ is a large shrub, growing 15 to 20 feet tall, with berries that ripen in June and are edible — if you can get them before the birds do.

Smoke Bush (Cotinus coggygria)

Smoke Bush
Smoke Bush is an under-appreciated shrub that has fascinating foliage all year long, but it really catches the eye in fall when the color is more intense. Cultivars of this plant come in a variety of foliage hues. ‘Golden Spirit’ (see above) starts the season a blinding chartreuse color before mellowing to yellow in summer. In fall, the round leaves turn an orange red. If you’d rather go dark, try one of the purple smoke bush cultivars, such as ‘Royal Purple’. This plant starts purple in spring and ends the season almost black in color — a fabulous backdrop for other fall blooms and foliage plants.

Cutleaf Sumac

© Mary Schier
Another North American native, Sumac is gorgeous in fall, but be warned, this shrub can get enormous (20 feet tall and wide), and it suckers freely. If you want the pollinator benefits of Sumac in a relatively more diminutive size, consider Prairie Flame Sumac (Rhus copallina ‘Morton’). This plant tops out at 6 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Its manageable size and flaming red color makes it a fall standout.


© Mary Schier
Even in a northern climate like mine, Rhododendrons hold onto their leaves year-round. While the leaves are a glossy green in summer, they turn red in fall before shifting to a deep, luxurious brown for winter. Rhodies like an acid soil and while their fall color is pretty, most grow them for their early spring blooms.

American Witch Hazel (_Hamamelis virginiana)

Witch Hazel
© Mary Schier
Finally, a fascinating plant that creates fall color through its blooms is American Witch Hazel, which puts out strappy, yellow flowers in fall. A denizen of the understory of deciduous forests, Witch Hazel prefers moist soil. It can get tall (20 feet) and might work best in wilder landscapes. It blooms in the cold, making it likely the last bloom northern gardeners will see until spring.
If your landscape is lacking color this fall, don't panic. It's not too late to get planting. Choose a shrub for year-round interest, and find the perfect place for it now to be basking in fall color for years to come.
What are your favorite shrubs for autumnal color?

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