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The Plant Lady: What should you plant to get the best fall foliage? Think small-scale

Fall is right around the corner and some may think that signals the end of garden color. Not so fast. There are many plants that can be incorporated into the garden to keep fall just as colorful as spring and summer.

Now is a good time to plant, as temperatures are cooling, yet still warm enough for roots to establish. Keep in mind, though, it may take at least a full year for them to achieve fall color.

In California, we don’t have the pleasure of experiencing true fall color like the East Coast – due primarily to our type of forest and our weather. Color change occurs in deciduous plants when there is a sudden frost causing the breakdown of chlorophyll (green pigment) resulting in other pigments (such as red anthocyanins and orange/yellow carotenoids) being displayed. That said, here are a few shrubs that will help you get that “California” fall interest in your garden.

Cotinus coggygria (Smoke tree)

Smoke tree can be grown as a single-trunked tree (12 to 15 feet tall) or a multi-trunked shrub in full sun, with low/moderate water. During the spring and summer, this deciduous plant will put on plumes of flowers. The flowers themselves are not showy, but the hairs of the fading flowers give the illusion of smoke – or as I think of it, a boa.

Various cultivars have purple summer foliage, including “Royal Purple.” “Ancot” Golden Spirit has lime-green summer foliage. Be aware, this cultivar is better grown in partial shade in hot, dry climates. During the fall, the foliage of all cotinus will turn red, orange and yellow.

Callicarpa species (Beautyberry)

Want a plant to stop people in their tracks? This plant is for you. During the summer, the plant is somewhat gangly with arching stems and insignificant pinkish/purple small flowers. But just wait. In fall, Beautyberry develops clusters of iridescent purple berries that are amazing. They linger on the plant well into winter. Beautyberry will tolerate full sun, but a bit of afternoon shade is ideal.

Hydrangea quercifolia (Oak leaf hydrangea)

Not only do these hydrangeas have large showy clusters of white flowers (8 to 10 inches long), but their foliage is interesting as well. As their name suggests, they have the shape of large oak leaves. They are ideal for a bright shade location with moderate moisture. The flowers fade to pink while the leaves will turn a showy red, resulting in a brilliant fall display. Prune when the flowers are completely faded.

Heteromeles arbutifolia (Toyon)

This California native (shrub/small tree) puts on a bright display of red berries fall through winter. The berries are a food source for birds, and during spring the white flowers attract bees. Planted in rows, they make an excellent tall hedge (10 to 15 feet tall). They do best in full sun with good drainage, but can tolerate clay soils.

Nandina domestica (Heavenly bamboo)

Yes this plant is everywhere – mainly because it handles a wide range of conditions, from shade, to full sun (in hot climates a bit of afternoon shade is ideal) and low water. However, it is hard to beat their fall color. The cultivar “Fire Power” grows to about 2 feet tall and has intense crimson foliage, but does not produce berries. Some cultivars such as “Royal Princess” can get as tall as 5 feet. The foliage and berries are great used in wreaths and arrangements. Make sure to plant a few together if you want berries, as single specimens will not produce as many.

Ginko biloba (Ginkgo)

Most people overlook planting Ginkgo because of their reputation as a very slow grower and the fear of getting a female specimen. The fruit on the females smells ... well, let’s just say it smells interesting. Luckily, most nurseries sell only male specimens. With regular deep water they can also grow faster than their reputation states, as much as 3 feet a year. During summer, the foliage is bright green and fan-shaped. When a fall chill hits, the foliage will turn a brilliant yellow-gold that almost seems to glow. These easy-to-grow trees can reach upwards of 80-feet tall, but stay quite narrow.

Vitis californica (Rogers Red)

After years of being called a California native, the science says this is a hybrid of the California native and a European wine grape. That aside, this is still a very highly recommended plant for fall color as well as a vine for a fence, arbor or trellis. Once established – and if given regular water (once a week) – this vine can be aggressive, but pruning will keep it under control. The plant will produce edible purple fruits, albeit not very tasty and containing a large seed. The fruits are a food source for other animals as well. The fall color is a crimson red that will brighten up any location in the garden. The vine will take full sun, but in interior hot locations, a bit of shade is ideal.

Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea nana (Dwarf Purple Japanese Barberry)

This small (2-feet tall and wide) deciduous shrub is an easy-to grow plant and will reward you with amazing crimson fall foliage and red berries. The spring/summer foliage is a purple-red, but turns a flaming red before it drops its leaves. The berries are not edible by us, but are eaten by birds. Low water and a bit of afternoon shade are ideal for these plants. One downside – the branches are covered in smallish spines.

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