Native shrubs that light up the fall landscape
“Autumn is a second spring, when every leaf is a flower.”
While this quote from Albert Camus’ 1944 play, The Misunderstanding, is taken out of context from the work of an unsentimental writer, it comes to my mind every fall because it is celebratory at a time when the general feeling is one of loss over summer’s blooms. Among the different ways to feel about fall, there is space, too, for perspective about “the best” and most colorful shrubs.
In truth, this is a disguised rant about the ubiquitous burning bush. Euonymus alatus is an ornamental shrub (i.e., it doesn’t have value to Hudson Valley ecosystems) introduced through the horticultural trade from China and northeast Asia. Its impact on woodlands was disruptive enough for the state Department of Environmental Conservation to include it as a regulated species in 2014 to contain the damage wrought by certain plants.
A regulated species can still be sold, but it is supposed to be labeled as harmful to the environment and it is illegal to knowingly plant one in a non-cultivated area.
Nearby neighbors have burning bush in their yards and I’m finding it more frequently in the woods around us. The seedlings are easy to identify because of the ridges on the stems and, in fall, its bright red leaves. To me, they are like little flags waving in the wind, calling out: “Cut me down, save the forest.”
Onward to alternative woody plants with gorgeous foliage that hold meaningful space in the landscape.
While blueberries require patience — it takes several years for a full harvest — they are worth it for their crimson, yellow and orange fall colors. Most of the leaves are down from the hardwood trees in my yard, but the blueberries are still bringing glory even after the temperatures have dropped.
Blueberries grow best in acidic soil. If the pH is above 5.0, they won’t thrive. Soil can be amended to lower the pH but it isn’t a one-time event. The soil pH will have to be monitored annually, which isn’t difficult with a home kit.
Ilex verticillata has nice foliage and a brilliant display of dark gray bark with red berries clustered thickly all over it through the winter until cedar waxwings, robins, catbirds, white-tailed sparrows and other species feast on the berries and nest in it. Pollinators turn it into a shimmering buzz of activity during its bloom season. People love it as holiday decor and I regularly see branches at markets. Along with a fall display that flows into winter, there isn’t a single reason not to have this woody plant in the landscape.
Note that this is a dioecious plant and you’ll need a female and male for berries. Only females produce berries. Many nurseries sell sexed winterberry, or if you’re well-versed in plant parts, learn to identify male/female shrubs by their flowers. The males lack a pistil and are clustered, while females bloom singly and have a pistil.
Years ago I passed on a used book, Viburnums: Flowering Shrubs for Every Season, by Michael Dirr, who wrote many tree and woody plant reference titles. I regretted my decision once I learned more about how many species there are (nearly 200) and how wonderful they can be in the landscape. I could design an entire yard with only viburnums and create delights for all seasons. Happily, I discovered another copy last summer. Lesson: Always buy the book.
The cranberry bush, Viburnum trilobum, in my yard has a pretty glow now. Other easy-to-source and maintain viburnums include mapleleaf (acerifolium), blackhaw (prunifolium) and nannyberry (lentago). Each of these have sprays of white blooms in spring and there are viburnums adapted to many soil types and growing conditions. They are responsive to pruning and can be shaped for different areas of the landscape. As a gardener who always has too many projects, I recommend not planting something that will need regular pruning to “fit” but instead finding one the right size for the location.
Other woody plants worth noting for fall color are witchhazel, oak-leaf hydrangea, chokeberry, sumac, dogwood and fothergilla.