Many people consider fall to be the most beautiful season, as leaves change from green to brilliant shades of orange, gold, red, and purple. To help you bring a little of that fall magic into your own yard, we created this list of the best landscape trees for fall color in our part of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Our favorites are well-adapted to our local climate, and most are native trees that are sure to grow well in our area. Any of these five beauties will add vibrant color to your fall landscape.
Blackgum or Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)
Nyssa sylvatica goes by many names, including Black Tupelo, Black Gum, Sourgum and Pepperidge. It’s a slow grower that will eventually reach about 40 feet tall with a spread of 25 feet. The pyramidal shape fits well into the home landscape and the tree provides ample shade, as well as small flowers that attract honeybees in spring and late summer fruit that birds enjoy.
Black Tupelo does best in average to evenly moist conditions (no standing water!), needs rich, acidic soils (it become chlorotic and the leaves turn yellow in alkaline soils), and doesn’t deal well with urban pollution so it’s best planted away from streets and dense urban areas.
Though shade tolerant, this tree develops its best appearance and fall color when grown in full sun. The spectacular fall foliage often has many shades of color on the same branch, including yellow, orange, bright red, purple, and scarlet.
Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)
The flowering dogwood is a New Jersey native that’s best known for its outstanding spring blooms. But in fall it also offers outstanding leaf color in shades of purple, orange, and red, and bright red clusters of fruits that often hang on into winter before being eaten by birds.
Dogwoods reach only 20-40 feet, so they make a good specimen tree in smaller yards. They prefer moist, acidic, organic soils and are found in natural settings as an understory tree, growing in partly shady areas under larger trees. In the home landscape they typically grow and look best when planted in full sun, provided they get enough water.
Flowering dogwoods are susceptible to dogwood anthracnose, a deadly disease, which is why it’s important to choose an anthracnose-resistant variety. One of the best is ‘Appalachian Spring’, a white-flowered selection with red fall leaves and fruit.
Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea)
One of 19 oak species that are native to New Jersey, scarlet oak is a surprisingly fast-growing oak for the landscape that can reach 75 to 120 feet at maturity. It has a somewhat rounded shape and produces acorns only every other year.
While the leaves on most oak trees simply turn brown or yellowish in autumn, the leaves of scarlet oak are one of the most colorful contributors to the fall foliage display, turning bright red before falling.
Plant scarlet oak in a spot with lots of room to grow and provide it with well-drained to dry soil (it doesn’t need particularly fertile soil). It’s susceptible to deadly oak wilt so don’t prune it in wilt-infested areas during the growing season.
Sugar Maple (Acer Saccharum)
The sugar maple is one of America’s best-loved trees, with four states (New York, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Vermont) claiming it as their state tree. It’s a large tree, growing up to 80-110 feet tall and 40 feet wide (so plant it where it’ll have room to grow) and can live for over 400 years.
These are the maples from which maple syrup is made but are perhaps best known for their spectacular fall color, when the leaves turn vibrant shades of yellow, burnt orange and red.
If your yard can’t handle the full size of a sugar maple, consider other kinds of maples that also have strikingly colorful leaves in fall, including the smaller Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). Avoid invasive types, such as Amur (Acer ginnala) and Norway (Acer platanoides) maples.
Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo Biloba)
Considered living fossils because they are the last survivors of tree varieties that grew worldwide 270 million years ago, gingkos are related to conifers but have fan-shaped leaves rather than needles. The leaves resemble those of the maidenhair fern, thus the common name: maidenhair tree.
Ginkgo trees often have an umbrella shape and can grow 80 feet tall, though many stay only half that height. We suggest planting a male ginkgo tree as the fruit of the female trees give off a strong smell that many find unpleasant.
Unlike the other trees mentioned here, gingkos put on a spectacular yellow foliage show in fall, making them a lovely counterpoint to all of the reds and oranges around them.
Plant the Right Tree in the Right Place
All of the trees we recommend above produce the best fall color when planted in full sun. Just be sure to choose the right-sized trees for your landscape and plant them in a spot that will give them plenty of space to grow. Give newly planted trees plenty of water, especially during summer drought; trees under stress have poorer fall color.
Don’t forget that “fall is for planting” so September through October is the perfect time to plant any of these trees. You may also want to plant one or more trees that bloom in spring to ensure that you have color in your garden all year round. Here are our top picks for spring flowering trees. And if you’re looking for general landscape trees that do well in central New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, then check out out recommendations for the best all-round trees to plant in our area.