The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

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Beyond Burning Bushes – Superior Shrubs for Fall Color

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

Oh, the ubiquitous burning bush. Sure they put on a two-week show of bright red leaves in autumn. However, most of the year they lurk as green blobs waiting for our inattention to allow them to consume our landscapes. Despite their designation as compact, burning bushes often grow way too big for their space. In frustration we hack them into balls and boxes, the unnatural shapes reminiscent of The Bobbitt or Alice in Asunderland. Their propensity to overwhelm is confounded by their reseeding into native forests, subsequently choking out native flowers and shrubs. Burning bush - a bully of a bush in every way.

Fortunately superior shrubs are available that not only have bright red to purple fall colors but also invite four season attention.

Little Henry® Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica 'Sprich') is a very usable size at 3-4 feet tall with lightly scented, pure white flowers that explode into fireworks at the branch tips. The dark green leaves convert to brilliant oranges and reds in fall. Sweetspire prefers moist soils and tolerates wet conditions as it grows in full sun to full shade and requires little pruning.

Flameleaf sumac (Rhus copallina) has few rivals for magnificent fall color. Flameleaf is perfect as a tall screen or as a tall groundcover allowed to ramble over a berm. It can reach 20 to 30 feet tall and just as wide as it sends out new shoots around the mother plant. The lustrous dark green leaves of 9-21 leaflets live up to their name as they ignite into crimson-red and scarlet in autumn. The cultivar 'Creel's Quintet' has 5 leaflets and grows only 5-8 feet tall.

Tiger Eyes Sumac™ (Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger') is a marvelous chartreuse-leafed selection of staghorn sumac. As if a summer long show of chartreuse leaves was not enough reason for us to crave it, the leaves drain into brilliant oranges and scarlets in fall. Tiger Eyes™ grows in full sun to part shade and reaches 6 feet tall and wide. It also forms new shoots, but minimally compared to other sumacs. The fabulous leaf color all season makes Tiger Eyes Sumac™ perfect as a focal point in the landscape.

Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) doesn't have the typical mophead flower of many hydrangeas; however, it does offer the four seasons of interest lacking in other hydrangeas. Flowers are typically white in 3-12 inch long panicles at branch tips. The dark green leaves, reminiscent of red oak leaves, can reach 8 inches long for a show stopper in the landscape. In autumn the hefty leaves are reluctant to tumble as they change to red and purple and remain until early winter. Stems are eye-catching with cinnamon colored, exfoliating bark. Oakleaf's winter appearance is not exactly beautiful, but definitely interesting; as interesting as grandma wearing a mini skirt. You can't help but stare.

Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) and black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) suffer from unappealing common names. These showy North American native shrubs offer lovely flowers in spring. Their lustrous dark green leaves transform into brilliant red to wine red in October. With their long legs and upright growth chokeberries are perfect for flower borders and are quite adaptable. 'Brilliantissima' red chokeberry is 6-8 feet tall with brilliant scarlet leaves in fall and more flowers and larger, more abundant fruit than regular chokeberry. Iroquois Beauty™ (Aronia melanocarpa 'Morton') is a smaller black chokeberry at 2-3 feet tall.

I've never met a viburnum I didn't like with their superb spring flowers. Most have remarkable fall color. 'Mariesii' viburnum possesses a distinctly horizontal habit with snow white flowers embellishing the full length of each branch. Fall color as with many viburnums is a collection of red, yellow and purple.

Deny the bully burning bush and look to superior shrubs for fall color.

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