Top ten plants for autumn!

 In Autumn Colour, Trees and Shrubs

My top ten plants for autumn list has been challenging to collate!

That’s not because I struggled to find ten, it’s because there are just so many to choose from!

I have restricted my choice to just woody plants but there are a few herbaceous perennial plants that can colour well in autumn.


In the south of England, late October and early November is generally when autumn colour is at its best.

This year it may be a little later since we seem to have been running a few weeks behind throughout the year.


What creates the leaf colour?

Sugars are trapped in the leaves as an abscission layer forms. This cuts connection to the rest of the plant and it’s the sugars that results in those fabulous colours!

But the weather conditions in autumn have to be right too.

Bright days and cold nights especially favour good autumn leaf colour.

This is why a continental, rather than a temperate island climate -such as ours- is more likely to give good results.

Of course not every plant does it and some are much better than others.

Don’t expect evergreens to colour up. Although there are some notable exceptions as we shall see.

So here is my top ten plants for autumn!

In no particular order, but with an eye to including trees and climbers as well as shrubs, I give you my choice –


Liquidambar styraciflua [Sweet Gum]
Sweet Gum, Liquidambar, red tree

Liquidambar styraciflua Worplesdon

This deciduous tree looks a bit like an upright maple in summer, indeed the leaves are very maple-like in shape.

It’s a native of North America and very hardy.

Well established trees start to change colour at the end of October.

There’s every shade imaginable from yellow, orange to vermilion and even purple!

All these colours are often there together.

But some named varieties can be relied upon to perform much better than seed raised and variable un-named forms.

For instance ‘Worplesdon’ and ‘Lane Roberts’ are good ones to seek out.

The tree shape is columnar but broadening with age.

Where space is limited plant the narrow newer form called ‘Slender Silhouette’.



Ginkgo biloba [Maidenhair tree]

Although ultimately a large tree, it turns the colour of butter and against a blue sky it is breath taking!

We had a tree planted at my old business Cleeve Nursery. It was planted for us by that great plantsman and good friend Roy Lancaster! I raised it from seed sown in the early 1980s.

Ginkgo, Maidenhair, tree, trees for autumn colour, garden, Top ten plants for autumn

Ginkgo biloba

It is now getting to be a quite a size!

Every November this deciduous conifer is spectacular!

This is an ancient tree with links to the time that dinosaurs roamed the planet.

A word of caution; the fruit when ripe smells awful and so it is wise to plant a male tree if you can!

Faced with this problem I love the way that Brooklyn Botanic Garden gets around it!

BBG has a whole avenue dropping stinking fruit! So they open their gates to the Chinese community who value the health benefits of this tree and just let them help themselves!



Cotinus coggygria [Smoke Tree]
Smoke tree, Cotinus Flame, orange leaves, bush

Cotinus coggygria Flame

Although it has ‘tree’ in its name, the smoke tree is really a large shrub.

Indeed by hard pruning during winter it can be kept to a medium sized bush. If you prune hard you won’t get its ‘smoke’ – the flowers- as they are produced on older wood.

But before leaf fall Cotinus leaves turn a fantastic colour!

This colour varies somewhat with variety.

The variety ‘Flame’ is aptly named and takes a lot of beating!

‘Golden Spirit’ has pale yellow leaves all summer but in autumn they change to burning reds and oranges. This one is also a more compact form lending itself well to small gardens.

‘Grace’ has larger almost translucent purple leaves all summer and these colour richly late in autumn.



Hamamelis [Witch Hazel]

Perhaps a surprising choice but some witch hazels turn up the heat in autumn!

Witch hazels fully justify their place on my top ten plants for autumn list.

yellow leaves, witch hazel, hamamelis

Hamamelis mollis

Add this great leaf colour to their incredibly hardy mid-winter scented flowers and they just have to be included.

Some selections produce better autumn colour than others. One is simply outstanding!

That is a variety named by the late Peter Dummer after his daughter Sandra. It’s called Hamamelis vernalis ‘Sandra’ and sadly hard to find.

‘Sandra’ is in fact an autumn flowering variety. The blooms are very much secondary to the tremendous display of orange leaves.

Hamamelis mollis often changes to butter yellow in autumn.

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ has rich orange leaf colour followed by flowers of the same colour in winter.

All Hamamelis can be kept small by relatively hard pruning immediately after flowering. Done then, next year’s blooms will not be sacrificed.




Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ [Red Barked Dogwood]
red leaves on a shrub, cornus

Cornus alba Sibirica

Sometimes seen labelled as ‘Westonbirt’, this is an easy to grow shrub.

It’s usually grown for the bright red stems that it has in winter.

But before the leaves fall, they turn a glorious wine red colour.

Tolerant of heavy soil and dampness it is very hardy too.

Under-planted with Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ for contrast, this is a shrub that glistens in winter sunlight.







Nandina domestica ‘Firepower’ [Dwarf Sacred Bamboo]
Nandina and grasses

Nandina domestica Firepower

Not a bamboo and not a deciduous shrub either; this evergreen is an anomaly!

As the colder and longer nights approach the evergreen leaves change colour.

They change from mid green to rich reds and oranges.

But unlike others on my top ten plants for autumn list the leaves remain on this plant!

They change colour without shedding and look good right through winter!

Many are ideal to plant in containers or sheltered sunny borders where it will rarely reach more than knee high.




Vaccinium corymbosum [High Bush Blueberries]
red leaves, blueberry in autumn

Blueberries provide spectacular autumn colour

Many fruit plants give good autumn colour.

Medlar, grapevines and even pears spring to mind but blueberries can compete with the very best ornamental plant in this category!

After your acid loving blueberry has finished fruiting it will change colour to a glorious fiery display of red.

This colour comes late in autumn and often not until mid November.

But it’s definitely worth the wait!

Even if grown in a pot filled with lime free compost it will often colour up well.

If you’re interested in growing blueberries do read my tips here first.



Parthenocissus [Virginia Creeper]
Boston ivy, red leaves, wall creeper

Parthenocissus tricuspidata Veitchii

Virtually all Parthenocissus produce great autumn colour.

This they do whether they are covering a north facing wall or scrambling high into a tall tree.

In October they are sensational!

Parthenocissus tricuspidata is the true ‘Virginia Creeper’ but it is often confused with the larger, but tidier P. tricuspidata Veitchii. The latter is actually the ‘Boston Ivy’.

Both require a big area to grow.

However the less widely planted Parthenocissus henryana colours up just as well in autumn! And it’s very considerably smaller growing too.

So if space is limited then Parthenocissus henryana is the one to grow.



Pyracantha Saphyr hybrids [Firethorns]
Firethorn yellow berries, Pyracantha

Pyracantha Saphyr Cadaune

Of course Pyracantha can also be trained on walls like the Virginia Creeper.

And it also grows into an excellent and colourful large screening shrub. It will make dense hedge too.

The autumn colour comes not from leaves but from bright berries so loved by birds in winter.

Indeed this is a good choice for wildlife in general since the flowers will attract many insects including bees.

The Saphyr hybrids are quite exceptionally good when compared to all other hybrids that I have grown.

These French selections have first rate disease resistance [which many others don’t] and produce a great crop of berries every autumn and almost without fail.

So it’s not the leaf that colours [they are evergreen] but it’s the berries that look great in autumn.



Acer palmatum [Japanese Maple]
red leaves of Japanese maple tree

Acer palmatum Osakazuki

No top ten would be complete without a Japanese Maple and of all the fabulous named varieties there are I would recommend ‘Osakazuki’ before all others.

It is not a new variety but has been around long enough to know that, if any maple will give good autumn colour Osakazuki will!

It can be grown in a very large pot but is best planted in dappled shade where the soil is deep and not limey.

Those at The National Arboretum at Westonbirt in Gloucestershire are growing on heavy clay soil and they seem to do rather well on it.



So that’s top ten plants for autumn!

What are your favourite autumn performers?

Would you disagree with any of my selection?

Where to see good autumn colour

You will find that there are many other great performers in autumn, especially if you visit one of the following gardens.

If you live in the Bristol area there are several notable gardens to visit to see good autumn colour.

Westonbirt The National Arboretum near Tetbury is world renowned for its’ fabulous tree collection and fine collection of trees that show good autumn colour.

Less well known is Batsford Arboretum near Moreton in the Marsh on the beautiful Cotswolds and they have a very fine collection and may be less crowded.

The National Trust Stourhead Garden has very fine trees that colour well and some of the best are reflected in the lake there.


Further reading


I’ve written about other great autumn performers here.

I strongly believe that autumn is the best time to plant hardy plants such as trees and shrubs. I explain why in this blog here.

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