Every autumn we are in awe of the beautiful colors of the leaves on our trees. The red, orange, yellow, browns and green hues offer an extraordinary, stunning and unique masterpiece each year. For many of us that appreciate the beauty of our natural landscape, fall is the time of year that Mother Nature really struts her stuff.
This is the time of year that the tourist industry encourages and celebrates people getting into their cars and driving up north to witness the fall colors of the trees. Thousands of people are driving 75 miles per hour and witnessing the beautiful trees from the inside of their vehicles, which helps out our economy.
I truly enjoy the sugar maples, red maples, black gums, birch trees, red oaks and many other trees but this year I have been really noticing the beauty of the many shrubs that also show off their fall color. I guess you could say, this year instead of having my nose and thus my eyes up in the air, I humbled myself and noticed the beautiful fall color of the shrubs. So here are some shrubs that have humbled my arrogance of only looking at the trees.
Red Chockberry (Aronia arbutifolia) shinning green leaves turn lush bright red with some purple overtones in the fall. At the garden center the cultivar “Brillantissima'” is the selection that is most often sold. It has more bright red fruit in the fall and intense red fall color than the species. Many plant experts believe that this great native plant is a replacement for the invasive burning bush that is found in many home landscapes.
The most common shrub in Michigan is the Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemose). It has a unique reddish purple fall color that can be witnessed along our highways. Adding to its beautiful fall color is the white fruit that stands out against the purple foliage. If you enjoy birds, over 100 species of birds supposedly devour the fruit. Maybe it is so common in Michigan because the seed is spread by passing through the birds’ digestive system. Once the fruit has fallen or been eaten the bright red pedicles that held the fruit show off their beauty.
Another plant that is so common along our roads and we often think of it as a weed is the common or staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). The crimson spikes of fruit mature in August and will be attractive and effective throughout the fall and most of the winter. Staghorn sumac has incredible bright fall foliage color that range from yellow, red, orange and purple. The unbelievable thing is that all of these colors occur at the same time creating a stunning presentation.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is another native that grows along the streams in southern Michigan. It is a rather large shrub that is use by the gardener who enjoys naturalizing. In the fall the foliage turns a beautiful lemon yellow. The entire shrub becomes uniform with one tone of bright yellow. The plant will also produce an attractive red fruit in the fall but I have never noticed a large enough abundance to make it showy.
Another excellent shrub for fall color is called dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii.) This is a slow growing plant that will only grow to a height of 4-5 feet. Just because it is small doesn’t mean that it doesn’t give a large impact in the fall landscape. The foliage will turn orange, red, yellow or purple. This kaleidoscope of color remains on the plant for an extended amount of time.
Thinking of shrubs that hold their fall foliage for an extended time, Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) comes to mind. There seems to be variation in regards to the fall color with this species. Some plants have just one color while other plants demonstrate a color variety of yellow, orange and red on the same plant. I have been impressed with a cultivar called “Henry’s Garnet” with its rich red-purple foliage that will last well into the winter.
The native witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) can be found in our deciduous woods in northern Michigan. The interesting thing about this shrub is that it blooms in September and October. If you look under the beautiful yellow foliage in the fall, there will be a discovery of yellow flowers. The flowers are found along the stems and have strap like petals. I don’t know what is more attractive, the flowers or the foliage. I will go with that this is a fantastic plant for fall splendor.
Senior Horticulturist Chuck Martin is grounds manager of Whiting Forest.