Autumn Reds – beautiful colors of Fall

Molly Dean

Autumn’s red glow comes from more than just brilliant leaf foliage. Among my most memorable impressions last November was the shift of crimson roses shining against a backdrop of gold-leafed crape myrtle at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Next, I encountered a grove of crab apple trees laden with scarlet fruits, delectable treats for frenzied robins. Turning a corner, I stopped to inspect the colorful flower spikes of salvias, including vivid reds.

Autumn reds found in foliage, flowers or fruit lend special cheer at a time when the specter of winter gray looms on the horizon. The Japanese liken the maple’s autumnal brilliance to a final, defiant flame-like burst preceding winter (or death). According to Dr. Jiro Harada in a 1930s lecture about Japanese art and culture, “Yes, many of us wish we may turn into something as beautiful as the maple leaves when we fall.”


Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) give a special glow to autumn scenes with their red, starry leaves; they also ornament with graceful forms and attractive bark. Good cultivars for this purpose include `Burgundy Lace,’ `Bloodgood’ and threadleaf maple, `Red Dragon.’ Some types, like `Bloodgood,’ produce seeds with red “wings,” while others, such as `Sangokaku,’ flaunt coral-toned twigs and young branches.

The maple’s autumn beauty is also celebrated in this hemisphere. In the words of Canadian poet Carman Bliss, “The scarlet of the maple can shake me like a cry of bugles going by …” Native maples enrich forests and towns all up and down the eastern United States with their vivid autumn colors. Busloads of tourists flock to quaint New England hamlets to enjoy this show. Even in southern Florida, an area notorious for lack of seasonal change, swamp maples (Acer rubrum) allow occasional glimpses of autumn reds. Of all the maples, A. rubrum contributes the boldest, most uniform scarlet to autumn scenes.

Maples aren’t the only trees with heart-lifting autumn reds. Sour-woods (Oxydendrum arboreum) brighten to a fiery crimson and look spectacular highlighted against blue October skies. This tree, with its “lily-of-the-valley” flowers and interesting seedpods, is ornamental most of the year. Dogwoods, (Cornus florida and Cornus Kousa) are also renowned as “trees of all seasons.” Foliage fades to stained glass effects of reds, peaches and lingering green as berries provide food for birds and glow against November grays. Excellent dogwood varieties to try include C. florida `Cherokee Chief’ (Zones 5-9) and C. Kousa `Satomi’ (Zones 5-8). Both of these trees can extend your red theme into spring: `Cherokee Chief’ produces ruby flower bracts, and `Satomi’ has dark rose flowers with pointed, starry petals.

Another multiseason tree, the serviceberry (Amelanchier), has airy, white, scented flowers and lush summer foliage. In autumn it makes its boldest statement when it blazes like red fire. Grow `Forest Prince’ (Zones 4-8) for spectacular autumn foliage, handsome, furrowed bark and red berries that appeal to birds.


Among shrubs, Euonymus alatus, the burning bush, surely produces the most traffic-stopping red, “a red so red it hurts,” according to one child. Notice, though, on cloudy days, this plant’s fiery glow dims to a rosy pink. Grow burning bushes in an open, sunny site for optimum glow. This shrub also bears scarlet, capsule-like fruits which split to reveal orange centers, surprisingly inconspicuous among such bright foliage. Euonymus `Compactus’ (Zones 4-8) makes a nice, informal hedge, and it flourishes with minimal care.

The huge oakleaf hydrangea billowing against our house fades to a study of rich, tapestry-like November shades. I love to photograph its papery blossoms, the color of old lace, against the wine red leaves. Black haw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) (Zones 3-8), which forms a small rounded tree or multi-stemmed shrub, creates a striking autumn picture with maroon foliage and shiny blue-black berries. Viburnum `Mohawk’ (V. x Burkwoodii) (Zones 4-8) has bright red-orange foliage and the most fragrant blossoms of all viburnums.

It’s hard to find brighter reds than those of autumn’s ripening berries and fruit. Think of the apples that glow like “living coals” or “the scarlet berries which tell where bloomed the sweet wild-rose!” Our sweetbriar rose `Eglantine’ is laden with prickly, red-orange, fruits each October.

The most famous berrying shrubs, of course, are not roses. By September, the glossy berries of Nandina domestica (Zones 6-9) are changing from pale green to rosy orange, and as fall progresses, gradually deepening to red, against a colorful-leafed backdrop. Nandina purpurea flaunts scarlet leaves when the weather turns cold. Fruits of the Japanese barberry (Berberis Thunbergii) (Zones 4-10), hang like shining red lanterns from arching thorny canes, creating a striking picture. Cotoneasters and deciduous hollies, such as Ilex verticillata `Winterberry,’ present jewel red berries on graceful branches, breathtaking against first snows. It’s always a marvel to witness the brilliance of such a display, derived from such insignificant spring flowers.


Many autumn flowers echo the warm colors of surrounding foliage, including red. One of the earliest fall flowers is indisputably the most brilliant. This is the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), lover of moist woodlands and stream sides. Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) (Zones 7-10) is a late-blooming herb that also has spiky scarlet flowers, offset by distinctive graygreen foliage. Grow pineapple sage not only to attract late hummingbirds, but also for its surprising fragrance. Crush a leaf between your fingers to catch a pineapple scent.

Dahlias extend the blooming season until frost. Try `Awaikoe’ for deep, rich, mahogany red, contrasted with an inner circle of white petals and a yellow center, or `Envy’ with beautiful red blooms that can be a foot wide. Early autumn-blooming chocolate cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus) (Zones 6-10) has a chocolate scent, velvety texture and rich color — a deep burgundy that contrasts well with silver-foliaged plants.

Sedum `Autumn Joy’ (Zones 3-9) is one of the most well-known autumn-blooming plants. It’s fun to watch the flower heads deepen from late summer pink to a glowing “rosy russet” in late fall. I like to inspect my clumps of sedum on crisp autumn days, and then glance back at the wild red maple edging the woodland garden. Venturing further I might encounter the sight, as I did one October day, of a group of male cardinals gliding past a backdrop of translucent red sourwood trees and landing in a rosy-leafed dogwood. As I watched in wonder, for an instant I was able to forget that I would ever see bleak old winter again.

Molly Dean is a frequent contributor to Flower and Garden magazine. Her last article was “Winter Shapes, Colors and Textures” in the December 1998 issue.

COPYRIGHT 1999 KC Publishers, Inc.

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