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How to Add Brilliant Fall Color to Your Landscape

Pin oaks, Ornamental Pear, Autumn Blaze Maple
Pin oaks, Ornamental Pear, Autumn Blaze Maple

The amazing fall colors in Wisconsin are a highlight of our season. You can go on scenic drives and to state parks to view the array of colors. Or, you can add trees and shrubs to your own landscape to have some of the best fall color in your own backyard.

On Saturday, Oct. 21, Friends of Boerner Botanical Gardens, Inc. (FBBG) the 40-year-old non-profit organization supporting the preservation of historic Boerner through year round programming, K12 student classes, special events and fundraising, hosted a Fall Color Walk at Boerner Botanical Gardens in Hales Corners, WI.

Judith Dee, the FBBG education manager, facilitated the walk as she does a host of seasonal walks and community engagement classes all year.

The walk was led by Mike Wendt, a Board Certified Master Arborist and retired MATC landscape horticulture and arboriculture instructor. 

As he led the group around the gardens, he pointed out trees and shrubs that would make great landscape fall color additions. Some of the expertise Mike offered were options for the best cultivars (a plant variety that has been produced in cultivation by selective breeding) for this area and which ones will hold up better in wind and other conditions.

Judith Dee from FBBG (left) Mike Wendt, Arborist (right)

(There are MANY factors to consider when making tree and shrub selections such as your soil ph, amount of sunlight, desired size and proximity to buildings, etc. In this instance we are focusing solely on tree and shrub options for brilliant fall color. Consider all the other factors before making your decision.)

A popular fall favorite is the Autumn Blaze maple. Aptly named, the leaves turn a brilliant red in fall. The Autumn Blaze has structural challenges without consistent, attentive pruning. Other cultivars to consider for stronger trunk and limbs are Sienna Glenn or Celebration Maple.


Crabapples get a lot of attention in the spring for their beautiful abundant blossoms, and rightfully so. They also deserve fall attention due to their colorful fruit. An option to consider is Firebird which is an excellent smaller tree. The fruit on this cultivar is harder, so the birds leave it alone and it lasts through the fall and winter. Selecting trees that are resistant to apple scab is also important.

A colorful shrub to consider is Oakleaf hydrangea which turns burnt orange in the fall.

The Yellow buckeye tree will turn a beautiful orange in the fall. The area around the tree can get messy with the nuts that drop from the tree. The nuts can be fun, however, since they look like eyeballs in late August. If you like the look of this tree, it can be put in the back of your landscape where the nuts won’t be a problem. Tip: buckeyes need good moisture.

Another fall yellow tree is the Shagbark hickory. The bark makes for great winter interest but will take 25 years or so to develop the shaggy look. The leaves are brilliant right away. Butternut hickory is an equally brilliant yellow option.

A tree that is not as popular but has an interesting leaf shape and colorful flowers is the Tulip tree. It produces pink and yellow flowers in June and nice yellow leaves in the fall.

Linden trees are a solid yellow color option for the fall and have a unique leaf structure. Their leaves are finer and produce less mess for those who don’t like to rake leaves. 

A Kentucky coffee tree offers yellow fall color and great winter interest of a stark form. It is also very insect and disease resistant which is why it is a great option for streets.

Norwegian sunset is a hybrid with Norway maple and shows a late orange fall color. American beech offer nice yellow leaves earlier in the season. American Beech are one of the first trees to change color and many are found in Door County. European beech is another yellow fall color which turns a little later.

Redbuds are another spring award winner with their purplish blooms that develop before the heart-shaped leaves fill in. In the fall redbuds produce yellow leaves. This is an overall great tree since it tolerates shade and still blooms. It’s important to be aware of the need to attend to structurally weak branch angles with this tree.

Redbud Tree
Redbud Tree

The Serviceberry, a small ornamental tree, offers nice red fall color and white early blooms followed by tasty purple fruits in June.

Winter King Hawthorns have orangey-red berries that persist all winter, providing a late fall color show. In addition, it is virtually thorn-free and has attractive bark.

Sugar maples offer an excellent orange and red fall color. The cultivar Fall Fiesta can grow fast, often two feet per year.

Bottlebrush buckeye is a great shade tolerant shrub with nice fall clear yellow color.

Oaks are an overlooked shade tree. They offer wildlife benefits as caterpillars eat the foliage, and the birds eat the caterpillars. Oaks helps sustain native species. If you plant the oak in the right environment at the right level, the oak can outgrow other species. The White oak turns wine color. The Red oak turns orangey red. The Pin oak turns flaming red. 

A favorite in the Boerner garden and maybe one of the oldest in the state is the Katsura tree in the peony garden. The leaves are lined up on the branch like soldiers. It provides a fall yellow, apricot color. A bonus is that when you walk through the fallen leaves, it smells like cotton candy.

Katsura Tree
Katsura Tree

White bark birches provide an excellent yellow fall color. They do best in cool, moist soil and need watering in the summer when it is dry.

With so many options for fall color, your landscape can be ablaze in color. Enjoy the grand color finale before winter sets in.

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