Small Trees with Big Fall Color

by Lisa Johnson, horticulture educator for Dane County UW-Extension

jn-strain-musclewood-carpinus-caroliniana-ftimg-712x1024

Carpus caroliniana

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.

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One thought on “Small Trees with Big Fall Color

  1. Hazels work well as big shrubbery for fall color, even with our mild climate. Crape myrtle colors nicely as well, but I so dislike them. Fall color is not popular in California, probably because not many are aware that it is possible here.

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