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Native Trees for Fall Color

Some of my favorite natives for fall leaf color grow in abundance in the Piedmont, and when the weather cooperates, we are in for a spectacular show. Sugar maples occur naturally further north of here and are a favorite for fall color. We can grow sugar maples here, but we have a little-known, although common, maple species native to our region. Chalkbark maple, Acer leucoderme, does not grow overly large and is commonly found as an understory tree in the sunny margins of our deciduous forests. Chalkbark maples grow to about 25 to 30 feet high with a rounded canopy and are found in dryer, upland soils. The fall color rivals the best that a sugar maple can put out.

Chalkbark maples grow to about 25 to 30 feet high with a rounded canopy and are found in dryer, upland soils. Paul Thompson, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Other great trees for fall color are our native hickories which grow throughout the state. Hickories are in the Carya genus, which also includes pecan trees. Hickories give us a rich golden-yellow fall color. These mix well with the other hues to give us a diversity of color. Hickory and oaks are two of the most dominant species in the area forests.

Speaking of oaks, there are probably more species of Quercus in the southern deciduous forest than any other genus of trees. The larger-leaved species of oaks give us reds and yellows, which peak after the maples are fading away. The scarlet oak, Quercus coccinea, is probably the cream of the crop for fall color among oaks.

Another common tree that has a bad rap because of its fruit is the sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua. It seems that nobody likes those gumballs. The tree does have virtues; however, one of them is that regardless of the weather, they always produce dependable fall colors of yellow, orange, maroon, and purple. The other virtue of this tree is that the seeds within the gumballs are a very important source of food for many of our over-wintering songbirds.

A tree with pink flowers Description automatically generated with medium confidence

Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) has a bad rap because of its fruit. The tree does have virtues; however, one of them is that regardless of the weather, they always produce dependable fall colors of yellow, orange, maroon, and purple.
Paul Thompson, ©2021, Clemson Extension

I would like to end with five of my most favorite trees for fall color: Sourwood, Oxydendron arboretum, Blackgum, Nyssa sylvatica, Sassafras, Sassafras albidum, and Sumac, Rhus spp. All of these have an intense kaleidoscope of color, including yellows, oranges, reds, and sometimes purples.

Sassafras is unfortunately rarely found for sale in nurseries or garden centers because it is difficult to grow in a container and does not transplant well from the field.

Sassafras is unfortunately rarely found for sale in nurseries or garden centers because it is difficult to grow in a container and does not transplant well from the field.
Paul Thompson, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Sourwood is only found in the Piedmont area of the state and is awesome if you like some peachy tones. They are a very important source of nectar for honeybees in the spring, with their beautiful racemes of white flowers on the ends of branches. They also possess a lot of character in their growth habit—always a refreshing change to everything having straight trunks and perfect symmetry.

Sourwood is a very important source of nectar for honeybees in the spring, with their beautiful racemes of white flowers on the ends of branches.

Sourwood is a very important source of nectar for honeybees in the spring, with their beautiful racemes of white flowers on the ends of branches.
Paul Thompson, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Blackgum can be found over most of the state, and when I lived in Charleston, it was about the only tree for dependable fall color aside from the sweetgum mentioned earlier. Sassafras is unfortunately rarely found for sale in nurseries or garden centers because it is difficult to grow in a container and does not transplant well from the field, but we do have native populations around to enjoy.

Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica) showing orange leaves.

Blackgum berries.
Paul Thompson, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Blackgum showing orange leaves and excellent branch structure.

Blackgum showing orange leaves and excellent branch structure.
Paul Thompson, ©2021, Clemson Extension

Lastly, the sumacs (no, I’m not talking about the poison sumac), especially the winged and staghorn sumacs, are a glory to behold in the fall and one of the first to show color. Although they can be found at native plant nurseries if you look hard enough, one place you can frequently enjoy them are road cuts along interstate highways.

Sumacs are a glory to behold in the fall and one of the first to show color.

Sumacs are a glory to behold in the fall and one of the first to show color.
Paul Thompson, ©2021, Clemson Extension

To learn more about the processes that give us fall color, see HGIC 1029, Color Changes in Autumn Leaves.

If this document didn’t answer your questions, please contact HGIC at hgic@clemson.edu or 1-888-656-9988.

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