The flora of spring and summer – with their neon-green leaves and their eye-catching pink and purple flowers – get a lot of attention in the garden.
But we shouldn’t forget about autumn’s contribution to Mother Nature’s colorful palette. Many deciduous shrubs and bushes shine brightly as the dog days of summer wane and a hint of fall’s crisp air begins to sneak in.
Let’s look at our top picks, a collection of woody shrubs that are particularly memorable and well-suited for landscapes east, west, north and south.
Our Top Picks
All of these selections make great eye-candy and will definitely make an impact in your landscape in the autumn and most can be grown throughout temperate North America and Europe.
1. American Beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana)
- Zones: 6-10
- Size: 3-5 feet tall and wide
When I asked my source at the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension office for some fall-color recommendations for Texas, he emailed me back a cartoon of a guy rolling on the floor laughing!
Despite the paucity of anything that turns a color other than brown here in Central Texas, he managed to come up with a couple of recommendations, including American beautyberry.
Indeed, the leaves of American beautyberry plant turn a fantastic shade of yellow (work with me here), which are truly and beautifully set off by this plant’s clusters of bright purple BB-pellet-sized fruits.
As a bonus for those looking for an understory shrub, this plant is quite shade tolerant; it prefers a shady spot. It’s not picky about soil, either, and it’s quite drought-tolerant, though it does perform better with regular watering, especially when it’s young.
Or you can check out our guide to growing American beautyberries here.
2. Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)
- Zones: 4-8
- Size: 8-12 feet tall, 8-15 feet wide
Bottlebrush buckeye is among the few shrubs on this list that prefers shady conditions. It even blooms profusely in the shade, developing long, upright spikes of white blossoms in late summer.
Its thick, light green leaves grow up to 5 inches in length and turn brilliant yellow in fall.
This plant prefers rich, moist loam, but will do fine in average soil if it is well-drained. It is intolerant of dry soils, especially when young.
3. Dwarf Fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii)
- Zones: 5-8
- Size: 1.5-3 feet tall, 2-4 feet wide
This shrub does well in the Southeast, especially in moist, acidic, rich, well-drained soils. This compact beauty flowers best in full sun, but the plant also appreciates some afternoon shade in hot and dry climates.
In spring, you’ll experience fragrant white bottlebrush-like flowers in 1- to 2-inch clusters. Come autumn, expect to be dazzled by red, orange, and yellow leaves.
4. Goldflame Spirea (Spiraea japonica ‘Goldflame’)
- Zones: 4-8
- Size: 3-4 feet tall and wide
The leaves of this spirea will make you happy from spring through fall. They emerge bronze red in the spring, mature to yellow green in summer, and then offer a yellow, copper, and orange show in autumn.
Like many of its colorful cousins, ‘Goldflame’ is a butterfly attractor. It grows well in average, medium-moisture, well-drained soils. It prefers loamy soil but will tolerate a wider range. And it prefers full sun but will tolerate light shade.
5. Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
- Zones: 3-7
- Size: 6-12 feet tall and wide
Grow this tasty treat in acidic soil with a layer of peat-like organic matter over well-drained sandy soil. It likes full to partial sun.
This plant shows off all year, with reddish-green spring leaves that turn blue green in summer and then red, yellow, purple, and orange in fall. Its small berries ripen from July through August.
6. Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)
- Zones: 5-9
- Size: 4-15 feet tall and wide
A favorite in the Southeast, this plant prefers rich, well-drained, slightly acidic soil that stays evenly moist without becoming soggy.
Its oak-like leaves can grow up to 12 inches wide, and they may offer a show of red, orange, gold, bronze and purple come fall.
In some climates, the colorful display can last into winter. When the bush does drop its leaves, exfoliating cinnamon-brown bark is revealed.
7. Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)
- Zones: 4-9
- Size: 6-8 feet tall, 3-4 feet wide
Native to the eastern United States, chokeberry offers seasonal interest year round. Clusters of very small white flowers arrive in spring, followed by copious amounts of small, glossy-red fruit. Leaves are dark green on top and gray-green underneath, turning bright red to reddish-purple in fall.
This shrub thrives in a variety of soil types, from acid to alkaline. It needs fairly moist soil until it is established, and then will tolerate drier conditions.
Red chokeberry needs at least 6 hours of direct sun daily.
8. Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea)
- Zones: 2-7
- Size: 7-9 feet tall, 10 feet wide
Beloved in the Pacific Northwest and sometimes known as creek dogwood or red twig dogwood, this unusual plant’s fall color comes not from its leaves but from its stems, which become a brilliant red in fall and winter.
This plant needs about four hours of direct sunlight each day, but is fine with shade or dappled shade the rest of the day. It will grow in acidic or alkaline soils that are moist.
9. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
- Zones: 4-9
- Size: 6-12 feet tall and wide
Spicebush is popular not only with humans but also with birds, deer, rabbits, raccoons, and opossums. One type of butterfly likes spicebush so much that it took its name from the plant – Papilio troilus is commonly known as the spicebush swallowtail.
You can plant spicebush in part shade if you like, but you’ll get the best fall color – a showy display of bright yellow leaves – if you put it in a spot that gets full sun. It’s not picky about soil, as long as it’s well-drained.
- Zones: Various
- Size: Varies
Many sumac types are renowned for their lovely fall color. Here are a few standouts to look for:
Cutleaf staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Laciniata’) grows best in Zones 4-8. You can expect it to reach heights of 9-15 feet, with a wide spread of 15-20 feet.
Cutleaf gets big enough that some might call it a tree, but its wide spread, multiple stems, and aggressive thicket-forming habit put it more in the shrub category.
Whatever you call it, it’s a beauty, especially come autumn when its long, deeply serrated leaves turn yellow, orange, and red.
This one likes average soil that drains well. It appreciates full sun but will tolerate some shade, and it is drought-tolerant once established.
Fragrant Sumac (R. aromatica) may be grown in Zones 3-9. It’s a smaller shrub, maxing out at 2-6 feet tall and 6-10 feet wide.
This low-maintenance beauty does well in much of the United States, requiring part shade to full sun, and needing low to moderate amounts of water. It prefers well-drained soils and thrives in difficult areas.
While related to poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), fragrant sumac is not poisonous and indeed its leaves offer a pleasant scent when crushed. The trifoliate leaves turn yellow, orange, red, and purple in autumn, offering a spectacular display of fall color.
11. Turpentine Bush (Ericameria laricifolia)
- Zones: 7-10
- Size: 1-3 feet tall and wide
Native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, turpentine bush likes it hot, and rewards with numerous tiny yellow flowers in late summer and fall.
Its name comes from the fact that its foliage is covered with a resin that, when touched, smells like turpentine. Its other common name is narrowleaf goldenbush.
This evergreen plant grows best in poor, dry soils that are low in organic material. It’s tolerant of sandy soils and those containing limestone. This long-lived plant is drought tolerant and doesn’t need fertilizer.
- Zones: Various
- Size: Varies
A number of viburnum species display brilliant fall color, and it’s too hard for us to pick just one!
Blackhaw, for example, shows off not only purple, reddish-bronze, or crimson leaves, but also blue-black berries in autumn. It will tolerate drought and may be planted in clay soil. It likes full sun to part shade.
This type grows best in Zones 3-9. It can reach heights of 12-15 feet with a spread of 8-10 feet at maturity.
‘Forest Rouge’ blackhaw plants (Viburnum prunifolium ‘McKRouge’) are available from Nature Hills Nursery.
‘Winterthur’ smooth witherod (V. nudum ‘Winterthur’) is another gorgeous option. It produces showy, fragrant white flowers in the spring, and its leaves turn deep red in the fall.
Winterthur appreciates full sun to light shade and wet to moderately dry soils. It can be grown in Zones 5-9 and will reach a height of about 6 feet tall at maturity, with a spread of 5-12 feet.
Korean spice (V. carlesii) is another enticing option. This low-maintenance plant likes a moderate amount of water and prefers full sun to partial shade. The foliage turns various shades of red in autumn.
It will grow happily in Zones 4-7, maxing out at about 4-6 feet in height and width.
Finally, consider arrowwoodhead (V. dentatum), another viburnum to look for if you’re after cool-weather color.
Its lustrous, dark green leaves change to glossy red and reddish-purple in the fall. Half-inch dark blue berries ripen in early fall.
It thrives in Zones 2-8, and you can expect it to reach 5-9 feet tall and wide.
‘Autumn Jazz’ arrowwood viburnum plants are available from Nature Hills.
13. Victor Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica ‘Victor’)
- Zones: 6-9
- Size: 3-6 feet tall, 2-4 feet wide
As if its summer-long display of deep red flowers weren’t enough, this variety of crepe myrtle puts on a fall display too – with lovely yellow leaves.
Like most crepes, this one is not picky about soil and can be quite drought-tolerant once established. It does want full sun.
14. Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)
- Zones: 5-9
- Size: 3-4 feet tall, 4-6 feet wide
This one is native to the eastern United States and it flourishes in average, well-drained soil. It prefers moist, humusy soils, but will tolerate a wide range of soil types. It will do well in full sun to part shade.
Virginia sweetspire bears fragrant, tiny white flowers borne in 3- to 6-inch-long cylindrical clusters. Its dark green oval leaves turn varying shades of gold, red, purple, and orange in autumn.
15. Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
- Zones: 3-8
- Size: 15-30 feet tall and wide
Common witch hazel puts on a dazzling autumn show when it bursts with fragrant yellow flowers featuring strap-like, crumpled petals that are similar to those of Chinese fringe flower.
The plant prefers full sun to part shade and doesn’t mind clay soils, though it does perform best in moist, well-drained dirt.
This plant can grow to be very large, but many gardeners like to keep it pruned to a smaller shrub size.
Extract of the plant’s leaves, twigs, and bark is used in the cosmetics industry as an astringent.
When the pinks and lavenders of summer fade, will your garden gracefully morph into the classic reds, yellows, and purples of autumn?
Wherever you live, we hope we’ve provided you with some selections that will make your fall garden as stunningly colorful as any spring landscape.
What’d we miss? Share your fall favorites in the comments section below!
If you dig “best of” lists, check out these roundups next:
© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Product photos via Nature Hills Nursery. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.
About Gretchen Heber
A former garden editor for a daily newspaper in Austin, Texas, Gretchen Heber goes through entirely too many pruners and garden gloves in a year’s time. She’s never met a succulent she didn’t like and gets really irritated every 3-4 years when Austin actually has a freeze cold enough to kill them. To Gretchen, nothing is more rewarding than a quick dash to the garden to pluck herbs to season the evening meal. And it’s definitely time for a happy dance when she’s able to beat the squirrels to the peaches, figs, or loquats.