by Lisa Johnson, horticulture educator for Dane County UW-Extension
The color of trees and shrubs this time of year is one of the best things about fall. Maples are often the stars of the show, but some small-scale trees can bring the colorful leaves closer and light up the mid-level of your garden. One native tree hardy to Zone 3 that thrives in partial shade and moist to average soil is musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana). Its fall color ranges from yellow to orange to red orange. It grows 20-30 feet tall. Musclewood, sometimes called blue beech or hornbeam, has interesting sinewy-looking bark (hence the name) and ornamental seedpods. Local Wisconsin nurseryman Mike Yanny of Johnson’s Nursery and JN Plant Selections introduced a lovely variety, Firespire (‘JN Upright’), with a tight, upright growth habit and red-orange fall color.
Amelanchier, or serviceberry, trees are Wisconsin natives, hardy to Zone 4 with a similar range of fall color and height as musclewood. Many cultivars are available and most are multi-stemmed plants. They display best fall color in sun, but tolerate some shade and need a moist to average soil. They sport beautiful clusters of white flowers in spring, bird-attracting fruits in summer and silvery bark and an elegant form in winter.
Eastern fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) is a native multi-stemmed tree hardy to Zone 4, growing to about 15 feet tall. It prefers full sun to part shade in soils with adequate moisture. Fringetree bears large panicles of confetti-like, white, lightly fragrant flowers in spring, shiny green leaves in summer and a good deep golden fall color.