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Plan Now for Fall Color in Coastal Alabama

March, 2020

Photo: Florida Maple by Judy Stout

By: Judy Stout, Mobile County Master Gardener

Q I read about the wonderful colors in the woodlands of the Appalachians and New England as leaves change in the fall. Is it possible to design my plantings to get a little of that color here in south Alabama?

A This is a perfect time of year to address that question for several reasons. First, the downside: even if you selected the best young trees and shrubs to get good fall color and planted them now you would not see results this fall. However, using careful planting techniques in the early spring before our summer heat sets in, and maintaining your plants with an adequate watering regimen through the summer, you should have a healthy, well established plant by this fall. You may even begin to see some color by next fall! Also, now is the season to shop great plant sales in our area. Check out the Mobile Botanical Gardens and the Weeks Bay Reserve sales in March for the largest numbers and varieties to select from and get your plants in the ground now!

And, "Yes!" we do have fall color here. It's perhaps not as spectacular as along the East Coast with large vistas of rainbow colors. Ours is subtle and offers moments of awe and appreciation for those single specimens and smaller vignettes of color.

Leaf color change occurs in deciduous trees and shrubs that shed their leaves each winter. As temperatures decline and daylight lessens, the plant can no longer manufacture enough food to support the upper parts and begins to lose its dominant green pigment, chlorophyll. Other pigments previously hidden by chlorophyll become apparent, revealing their yellow, orange, red, and purple colors as the leaves die and fall off. The remaining food is transported to the plant roots to support winter growth and prepare for spring regrowth of the leaves. The optimum conditions for this are sunny days, crisp nighttime temperatures and moderate rainfall. Some years conditions are just right, and color is great. In other less than optimum years, the leaves die quickly and fall to the ground with little or no noticeable color.

There are many plants to choose from that grow well here and may offer the color changes you are looking for. You can select trees or shrubs and plant individually or as clusters in the landscape. Recommended varieties are listed with possible leaf colors. Intensity will vary with the cultivar selected and weather conditions.

Larger trees might include:

· Red maple (Acer rubrum) red: tolerates clayey soil, extreme heat and drought, a bonus

of red spring flowers before leaves appear

· Pond cypress (T. ascendens) orange

· Willow oak (Quercus phellos) bronze

· Pagoda oak (Quercus pagoda) creamy tan leaves persist through winter until new leaves


· Ginkgo/maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba] gold, yellow: slow growing, long lived, drought tolerant

· Black gum/Tupelo gum (Nyssa sylvatica, N. aquatica) red, maroon: prefer moist acid soils and tolerates wet areas

· Sourwood (Oxydendron arboretum) yellow, red, purple; or

For a smaller area you might use:

· Japanese maple (Acer japonica) 'Red Pygmy and 'Red Dragon' red weeping, are good varieties; some others have attractive, colorful stems when leafless

· Crape myrtles (lagerstroemia indica hybrids) yellow, red; mahogany peeling bark on 'Natchez' cultivar

· Eastern red bud (Cercis canadensis) yellow; cultivar 'Forest Pansy, red-purple; a bonus of red spring flowers before leaves appear

· Sumacs: winged (R. copallinum) red, orange; red fruits for birds

· Flowering Dogwood (Comus florida) red, maroon; red fruits

Don't forget shrubs, used either separately or as an understory to your trees:

· Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) red, bronze, purple; dried seed heads persist; attractive peeling bark

· Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii) yellow, orange, scarlet; fragrant flowers; and

· Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), 'Little Henry', red, maroon.

Other possibilities for color might be shrubs with amazing fall berries such as beautyberry {Callicarpa americana}, abundant glossy, purple berries for birds; and sweet Viburnum (Viburnum odoratissimum).

Wowl We really do have the possibility of fall color. I can hardly wait for the plant sales and what your yard will look like this time next year! Plant, nurture, wait, and enjoy.

Master Gardener Helpline: 1-877-252-4769, or send your gardening questions to Website:

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