Monday, October 22, 2012

Some of my BFF Trees for Fall Color in New England

Sugar Maple, Japanese Maple, Dogwood, Stewartia,
Sourwood, Ginkgo, Katsura
So many trees add to the amazing display of fall color in New England, but what we see when driving through the hills of Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine differ significantly from what we see in our own neighborhoods.  In the suburban neighborhood the colors can be stunning with many of the introduced plantings in people's landscape.

If you are interested in learning more and tracking the areas where color is peaking in New England, go to the Yankee Foliage site, and you will be more than overwhelmed with ideas and information.
When you see fall color out in nature in New England, the color comes from a large variety of big native trees:  Maple, Oak, Beech, Cherry, Ash, Birch, Linden, Tulip Poplar, Hickory and others.  There is also a large group of smaller, understory trees that contribute: Dogwood, Redbud, Sassafras(several groves in Winchester), Maple among others.  This native diversity does not exist as much in the suburban landscape, but many introduced cultivars can make the color in smaller landscapes just as intense.

Following is a group of my favorite trees for fall color that are on full exhibit now.  It is not an exhaustive list and I will include some of the trees that color later in a subsequent post.  To be included on this list, the tree must provide the landscape more than just some colorful leaves.  I also apologize for my somewhat lame photography, I am still learning...

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

Sugar Maple - Variety of color
on one tree
The quintessential New England tree for fall color is the Sugar Maple.  This year with more rain and a better cooling in the early fall has given us one of the best displays in years.  Cooler weather will bring out more of the orange and red, especially in the Maples.  If you have the space, these are beautiful shade trees with wonderful bark.  Unfortunately, with pollution and the warming, the trees natural habitat is moving north, and one day, Boston may no longer have the benefit of these beautiful trees.  Even now, trees that are not in optimal conditions are showing stress, which is apparent in smaller leaves and earlier color.  If your tree is well colored and losing most of its leaves as of now, then it is suffering from some stress.  Contact a good arborist who will provide ideas to improve its condition.

Katsura Tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum)

Katsura Tree- Apricot fall color
This is a real favorite of mine for its wonderful shaped leaves and variety of leaf color throughout the year.  The leaves emerge in the spring bright green with some red and then turn to a beautiful blue-green during the summer.  In fall they turn this fantastic apricot color and sometimes have a sweet scent as they dry.  When small, the tree can look similar to our native redbud (Cercis canadensis), but with smaller leaves.  As the tree grows it has a distinctive look with its branching and how it holds its leaves.

In Winchester we have had a number of old Katsura Trees that were given to us by a Japanese sister city at the turn of the last century.  One of the largest still exists off of Highland Ave and is a monster at 70-80'.

Ginkgo Tree (Ginkgo biloba)

Ginkgo biloba - Unique leaves
and beautiful yellow color.
This truly is a one-of-a-kind tree.  Botanically it is related to nothing else alive on the planet.  As you can see from the leaf, it is different, and as a young tree  can be very awkward looking.  However, with some maturity it will develop into a beautifully formed tree.  It is also a little different in that it is dioecious, meaning unlike most trees that have male and female parts on the same tree, the individual trees are either male or female.  I bring this up because on my college campus, each fall a mature female Ginkgo Tree would bear its fruit and it smelled like a port-o-potty dumping site.  Nowadays, female trees don't make it into the trade very often, but it is definitely something to avoid with this tree

The leaves in fall turn a wonderful yellow, and in one day they decide to all drop from the tree.

Bloodgood Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum "Bloodgood")

Bloodgood Japanese Maple
This is the classic red upright Japanese Maple, in full size it will mature to 30' and in mostly sun will maintain its deep burgundy red color throughout the year.  Once the frost hits it starts to slowly brighten up, and in a good year turns a brilliant bright orange/red.  The grace and layers of these tress is what makes them so valuable in the landscape, and as relatively slow growers, they are easy to maintain and shape to any size.

In the image below, you can see the beauty in using several different cultivars (varieties).  In all seasons, it provides a contrast of color and leaf shape.  The green Japanese Maples come in several shades and different colorations throughout the year, and the reds show the same diversity.  Ideally these Maples are used as individual specimens, but often awkward trees are best grouped together into small groves.

A grove of many different Japanese Maples in color
on an estate I recently managed

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Cornus florida 
There are three major species of Dogwood here in New England.  The native, Cornus florida flowers first before the leaves come out on the tree and is one of the finest flower displays in the world of trees. The Korean Dogwood, Cornus kousa, is the last to flower in May and the flowers cover the tree after the leaves have emerged, so it is a very different look.  In between, in terms of flower timing and leaf emergence are the hybrid Dogwoods, that are a mix of the native and the Korean.  All have wonderful flowers and dark orange to deep burgundy read leaves in the fall.  With so many other bright yellow and orange colors out there, this is a nice, deep, dark fall color.  There can often be quite a bit of variation depending on the sun exposure of the tree.  More shade on the leaves leads to less glucose production and lighter colors.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis "Cole's Select")

Amelanchier canadensis"Cole's Select",
range of colors on one tree
This is a great native that has many newer cultivars that help to accentuate some of its finer qualities.  This is large shrub, small tree that is best as a multi-stem plant allowed to grow in its natural form.  It is not grown for its form like the Japanese Maple or Stewartia, but rather for its spring flowers followed by summer berries and wonderful bright fall colors.  These are best in groups as understory trees away from the terrace or driveway.


  1. I recently planted Serviceberry...flowering dogwood is on my list.

  2. Someone once tried to convince me to plant a Katsura tree and I regret not going for it. I do have some serviceberry, flowering dogwood, and several shrub dogwoods. I love them all.

  3. I enjoyed the tour of your New England trees. All grow here as well, except the sugar maple. The photo of the Japanese maple grove is stunning! I have always wanted to take a fall foliage tour in New England. Maybe someday when I retire!