Trees and shrubs that explode with color in the fall

  • The river birch has a papery bark that adds beauty to the fall and winter landscape.

    The river birch has a papery bark that adds beauty to the fall and winter landscape. Daily Herald File Photo

Posted9/8/2019 7:00 AM

Q. What trees and shrubs can I plant this year for fall and winter interest in the future?

A. The striking beauty of the fall and winter landscape is the result of a slowing of life processes in the trees and shrubs as they acclimate to the cooler and shorter days.


The food-making chlorophyll in the leaves of deciduous trees and shrubs, which kept the leaves green during spring and summer, breaks down, allowing the previously masked orange, red, brown and yellow pigments to make their appearance.

With these changes in temperature and length of days, deciduous trees and shrubs such as maples, ginkgos and sumac are standouts in the fall landscape. The sugar maple displays a brilliant orange-red color while the leaves of the Japanese maple turn a dark red or, with some varieties, purple. Additionally, paperbark maples are prized for their beautiful leaf color but especially for their attractive peeling bark, a four-season feature.

Also notable are ginkgos, natives of China, but long a part of the Chicago landscape. Interest comes from their upright habit and fan-shaped leaves which become bright yellow in the fall. (Buy only the male variety; the females have an obnoxious, smelly fruit). The river birch, like the paperbark maple, has papery, exfoliating bark and its fall leaves are a butter yellow. The leaves of the staghorn sumac, a Chicago native, range in color from yellow and orange to scarlet.

Evergreens are of two types and offer persistent color year-round as well as providing structure, form and texture in the garden. Variable in size and habit, conifers (which means "cone-bearing") include, among others, the upright blue-green Colorado blue spruce; the "weeping" pine tree Serbian spruce, Picea amorika pendula; and the low-growing and long-lived yews.

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Broad-leaved evergreens include evergreen spring-blooming azaleas and the Ilex, or holly family, which, on the female plants, produce winter berries and attract birds and wildlife.

Deciduous shrubs can provide both fall and winter interest. In addition to their appealing foliage colors in the fall, some shrubs in the dogwood family feature interesting bark, yellow or red in color, and branch arrangement. For example, the Pagoda dogwood's horizontal branching habit can catch the winter snow and ice.

When planting these trees and shrubs in the fall, be sure to water well, so the root systems get well established before the ground freezes.

Two valuable resources are the Morton Arboretum and the Missouri Botanic Garden: and

-- Arlene Swartzman

• Provided by Master Gardeners through the Master Gardener Answer Desk, Friendship Park Conservatory, Des Plaines, and University of Illinois Extension, North Cook Branch Office, Arlington Heights. Call (847) 298-3502 on Wednesdays or email Visit

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