Story and photos by Judy Stout, Mobile County Master Gardener

Q: Friends and I have had occasion to travel the Appalachians and New England to experience the glorious colors 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 trees and shrubs to get good fall color and planted them now, you would not see results this fall. However, fall is a perfect time to plant trees and shrubs, providing them the entire fall and winter to get their roots established and to prepare for growth in the spring. 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 October for the largest numbers and varieties 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, which has 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 masked 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’re 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, bears red spring flowers before leaves;
• Florida maple (Acer barbatum) yellow, gold, orange;
• Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) orange;
• Pond cypress (T. ascendens) orange;
• Pin oak (Quercus palustris) red;
• Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) scarlet;
• Ginkgo/maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba) gold, yellow; slow growing, long lived, drought tolerant;
• Black gum/Tupelo gum (Nyssa sylvatica) red, maroon; prefers moist acid soils and tolerates wet areas;
• Sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) yellow, red, maroon; messy seed heads, but good for crafts and decorations!
• Sourwood (Oxydendron arboretum) yellow, red, purple.

For a smaller area you might use:

• Japanese maple (Acer palmatum); “Bloodgood” red upright, silver bark and “Tamukeyama” red mounding are good varieties;
• Crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica hybrids) yellow, red; mahogany peeling bark on “Natchez” cultivar;
• Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis) orange, red; foot-long leaves with narrow leaflets; slow grower; drought tolerant but handles irrigation;
• Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) yellow; cultivar “Forest Pansy,” red-purple;
• Sumacs: staghorn (Rhus typhina), smooth (R. glabra), winged (R. copallinum) red, orange; red fruits for birds;
• Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) yellow, orange, red, purple; prune as single tree or grow into a clump.

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

• Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) red; red berries for birds;
• Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) red, bronze, purple; dried seed heads persist; attractive peeling bark;
• Dwarf fothergilla “Mount Airy” (Fothergilla gardenii) yellow, orange, scarlet; fragrant flowers;
• Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), “Little Henry,” red, maroon.

Other possibilities for color might be shrubs with amazing fall berries such as beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), which has abundant glossy, purple berries for birds; and red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), with its glossy red berries.

And what about a few spectacular grasses with fall color? Check out blue fescue (Festuca glauca) with its blue-gray leaves; purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) with its airy, fuzzy, reddish-purple seed heads; crimson fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum) with plumelike, reddish seed heads; and pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) with its fuzzy, tall pink seed heads.

Wow! 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, wait and enjoy.

GARDENERS, CHECK THIS OUT:

What: Mobile Master Gardeners Monthly Meeting
When: Thursday, Oct. 4, 10-11:45 a.m.
Where: Jon Archer Ag Center, 1070 Schillinger Road N., Mobile
Topic: Poinsettias
Speaker: John Olive, director, AU Ornamental Horticulture Research Center

What: 26th annual Weeks Bay Native Plant Sale
When: Oct. 11-14 (Thursday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
Where: Safe Harbor at Weeks Bay, across U.S. Highway 98 from Reserve Interpretive Center.
Featured: Native trees, shrubs and perennials

What: Mobile Botanical Gardens Fall Plant Sale
When: Oct. 19-21 (Friday and Saturday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
Where: MBG MarketPlace, 5151 Museum Drive, Mobile
Featured: Best plants for your Gulf Coast garden

More info: MobileBotanicalGardens.org or call 251-342-0555.

Master Gardener Helpline: 1-877-252-4769 or send your gardening questions to coastalalabamagardening@gmail.com.