By: Karma Larsen, Nebraska Forest Service & Nebraska Statewide Arboretum
Over the span of a week or two—just a slight turn of the kaleidoscope—the color wheel changes. The rich greens of summer foliage, which haven’t browned thanks to moisture and cooler weather, have begun to shine yellow, red and purple in the fall landscape. For all the challenges the Midwest throws at us, seasonal changes are part of the payoff. It’s time to enjoy.
In terms of sheer volume, trees and shrubs are the most noticeable, but perennials are losing their chlorophyll-induced green as well. Yellow and orange pigments become more noticeable with the loss of chlorophyll; while vibrant red color results from a more complex mix of trapped glucose, bright sunlight and cool nighttime temperatures. In years with an early frost, leaves are more likely to simply dry up and turn brown. We’ll see what fall 2015 has in store for us, but below are some plants to brighten up our fall gardens in future years.
Yellow and Orange Fall Color
- Bluestar, Amsonia, has tiny blue flowers in spring and in fall the abundant feathery foliage turns a brilliant golden yellow.
- Solomon’s seal, Polygonatum, has bluish-black berries in summer that go beautifully with the yellow fall foliage. The variegated one with its ivory-streaked foliage is even more striking.
- Other perennials for yellow fall color include gooseneck loosestrife, monkshood, hosta, balloonflower and ferns.
- Pale grasses that will brighten barren landscapes include blue and sideoats grama, with interesting seedheads that focus attention on their soft buff colors. Others to consider include: Indiangrass; prairie dropseed in orange to light copper shades; switchgrass; and the very upright Korean and feather reed grass.
- Trees for yellow fall color include cottonwood, baldcypress, birch, honeylocust, ginkgo, dogwood, ash and some maples and oaks.
- Shrubs include witchhazel, spicebush, bottlebrush buckeye and native serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia.
Reds and purples
- The common name bloody cranesbill makes it clear that perennial geraniums are great plants for crimson fall color.
- Columbine, bergenia, coralbells, sedum and prairie smoke turn varying shades of red and purple; and the foliage of all these hardy plants often persists far into winter. They’re a beautiful contrast to muted mulches or bright white snow.
- For grasses, little bluestem in cultivars like Dallas Blues offers vibrant blue and purple fall highlights. Shenandoah switchgrass has red and purple foliage. Indiangrass tends toward copper highlights.
- In Nebraska, red fall color in trees can be extremely variable, but some of the maples and oaks, sweetgum and many others turn red to purple.
- For shrubs, very few plants outshine the sumacs. Viburnums tend to have dark berries that contrast with their red foliage. Other reds include chokeberry, burning bush, some varieties of serviceberry and eastern wahoo.
Photo Credit: Nebraska Statewide Arboretum