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12/18/2017
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Fall Color can be Factor in Selecting Landscape Plants

by L. Johnson

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Ok, you’ve done your homework -- you know that you want a deciduous tree that grows no more than 40 feet tall, that’s free of serious pests and hardy in Michigan, and you’ve narrowed the possibilities to three. The main difference? One has brilliant red foliage in the fall; the

leaves on the others simply turn brown and fall off.

Which will you choose? Unless your landscape is awash in fall color so that one more hue would be one too many, surely you’d pick the one with outstanding fall color.

“Other traits are more important than fall color,” says Mary McLellan, Extension Master Gardener program coordinator at Michigan State University. “Whether the tree is hardy -- whether it will survive average to colder-than-average winters here -- whether it will fit the location where you want to plant it when it reaches its mature size, whether it’s prone to develop serious insect or disease problems or suffer damage from ice and wind storms -- all these things are more critical to a plant’s success in your landscape. But after you’ve eliminated the choices that don’t quite measure up in these criteria, why not use fall color to help you choose from the others?”

Fall color can be more than foliage -- colorful fruits can add to the fall display and even continue it into the winter. And the birds and other wildlife that may visit your yard to feed on them can be an extra bonus.

Checking out the fall display of the plants you are considering planting is one approach. Another is to watch for attractive plants and then research their other traits to see if they match your needs, McLellan suggests. If you’re going at it that way, a visit to your local nursery or an arboretum where plants are carefully labeled is a good start.

“You can also watch for outstanding color in landscapes and stands of native plants,” she notes, “but it can be difficult to identify these plants precisely and sometimes impossible to find them available commercially.”

Trees frequently recommended to add fall color to the landscape include the red maples ‘Autumn Blaze,’ ‘October Glory’ and ‘Red Sunset.’ They turn orange-red, rich golden yellow and flaming red, respectively. Sugar maples provide shades of yellow, orange and red. Japanese maple and callery pear add a dash of reddish purple to the landscape. For deep red, consider red or white oak; for yellow, honey locust, hornbeam and poplar.

Colorful shrubs include the viburnums, some of which are known as “burning bush” because of their bright red fall foliage.

For another type of fall display, check out the common witchhazel, Hamamelis virginiana. It flowers in late October to early November, just as its foliage turns golden yellow.

Ivy and some other creeping ground covers will stay green long after deciduous trees and shrubs have lost their leaves, McLellan points out, providing a green counterpoint to the warmer colors of woody ornamentals.

“Some plants with striking fall color have other less desirable traits,” she notes.

The gingko, a prehistoric species with fan-shaped leaves, has a pleasant butter-yellow fall color. It’s hardy and essentially free of insect and disease problems, but the female trees bear messy, smelly fruits. To be sure of getting a male tree, buy nursery stock grown from cuttings, rather than seeds.

Sassafras, whose variably shaped leaves turn a brilliant red-orange in the fall, isn’t often used in landscapes because it rarely survives transplanting.

Mountain ash is often planted for its clusters of orange fruits, but it’s prone to both insect and disease problems and usually short-lived in the landscape. Some crabapple varieties likewise have serious disease problems. Less problem-prone species and varieties require less maintenance to live longer and perform better in the landscape.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

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