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The Garden Guru: A blazing trail through fall color

Last week’s first freeze of the season has spurred a lot of great color in our North Texas landscapes and woodlands. Driving home just a couple of days ago, I was reminded that we do have nice fall color here in Texas. Maybe not close to the standards of Vermont and New Hampshire at the end of September, but still handsome enough to be mentioned.

And so, I decided to backtrack my trip, this time with a camera. I thought it would be fun to see what color I could find within 5 miles of my house. Every one of these photos was taken within the past several days. Some are native plants, and others are landscape plants. The common thread through them all is one of lovely fall color.

But first, one caveat. Fall color is very short-lived, often just a few days before the plant drops its leaves. So let it be a consideration in your choice of landscaping plants, but don’t let it be the only or even prime factor. Buy plants that are attractive and dependable year-round.

Japanese maples are obviously not native to our locale. In reality, they grow natively where weather is cool and humid. But we’ve found them to do quite well in shade gardens in North and East Texas. Red-leafed types are brilliant in the spring as their new growth emerges. They’re colorful through the summer, although the shades are dulled by our heat. But, oh, when November and even December arrive, it’s an entirely different story. The red types turn brilliant red, and green-leafed varieties turn all shades of yellow, orange and red. If you’re looking for a colorful and lovely little understory tree to grow in the shade, this is one of the finest.

As a side note on Japanese maples, make plans to visit the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, specifically the outstanding Japanese Garden, between Thanksgiving and early December. There is no more spectacular fall color display in North Texas than what you’ll find down in that hollow. Take the family, the camera and all of your memory cards. You’ll want to have them all along with you.

Redbuds are not commonly known for their great yellow fall colors, but one young native seedling along my route really caught my eye. Its leaves were large and pretty much undamaged by a full season of Texas summer, and the sun brought out its brilliant gold colors. Most of us don’t grow redbuds for fall color, however. We’re in love with their long-lasting and gorgeous pink, burgundy or white early spring blossoms.

Shumard red oak is one of our finest landscaping trees for North Central Texas. Its fall color will vary, and this isn’t an especially brilliant year for many of the specimens, but several along my trek called my name as I passed. I like to recommend Shumard red oaks for landscapes, because I know you’ll be getting a superior landscaping tree that will contribute mightily to your garden design for 100 years or more. Fall color is just icing on an especially wonderful cake.

Crape myrtles’ summer color is renowned, but they’re also lovely in fall. Red- and purple-flowering types turn all shades of burgundy, orange, red and yellow. White-flowering types turn only to yellow.

Prairie sumac, also known as flameleaf sumac ( Rhus lanceolata), is native to Metroplex hillsides, and it’s a reliable source of crimson red foliage each fall. Tucker Reed, horticulture manager at the Dallas Arboretum, spoke about it last week on my radio program, describing it as a native alternative to Japanese maple — one that could handle full sun and chalky, alkaline soils. It grows to be 12 to 20 feet tall and not quite that wide, but it starts adding color even when it’s still a young tree. It also brings a pleasant light texture to a garden design.

Texas ash is another plant that turns eye-popping gold every fall. I know that gold isn’t the goal so much as red or even orange, but it’s hard to scoff at anything that brightens a garden so flamboyantly. Then again, it’s still an ash, and it’s still likely to develop serious issues before many years pass. So I choose to admire ashes on other people’s properties.

Those are the plants that I came across on my little driving journey this week. Missing are a couple of the other truly fine performers that you might want to consider. If you don’t mind short, productive life expectancies, Aristocrat pears are always ablaze in the late fall — usually Thanksgiving or after. They’re better than Bradford pears, because Aristocrats have much stronger branch angles, but they’re still probably only going to be good for 25 years or so.

If you’re one of the lucky people with sandy soils, sweetgums are fabulous every fall. In fact, of all the trees that grow natively in Texas (they’re from East Texas), sweetgums are best of the bunch for fall color. Unfortunately, for those of us with alkaline black clay soils, they soon develop severe iron chlorosis.

Well, I’m back home again and it’s time to file my report. I enjoyed having you along for the ride. I hope it was of value to you as well.