CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Native plants for fall color

By Irene Shonle, CSU Extension in Gilpin County

Colorado’s fall colors are often overlooked or underrated, especially by people who feel that only the splendid reds of the upper Midwest and East Coast “count.”    “Yeah”, they say wistfully, “Colorado’s fall colors are just, well….not the same.:

Okay, maybe they’re not the same, but I would like to say that I, for one, LOVE our falls.  Perhaps there aren’t the vast maple forests, but when I see translucent aspen leaves lit by a slanting sun and contrasted with our blue blue sky, it makes my heart sing.

And, let’s not overlook that some aspen have a genetic tendency towards reds, especially some years.

But, aspen aside, there are many fantastic native shrubs and even perennials that can provide fall color.Take smooth and three-lobed sumac (Rhus glabra and Rhus trilobata ), for example. Both provide nice fall reds.  Smooth sumac is the more fire-engine red, but beware of its rhizomatous and aggressive nature, and only plant where you have lots of room. 

Rhus trilobata
There’s red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea AKA Swida sericea).  It has lightly fragrant white flowers in spring, lovely red fall color, white berries for birds and –bonus!—red twigs for winter interest.

Golden Currant (Ribes aureum and Ribes odoratum) have fragrant yellow flowers (R. odoratum especially), edible black berries and a gorgeous red. I particularly like pairing it with Western sage (Artemisia tridentata) for the color contrast.

Waxflower (Jamesia americana) is a Plant Select ® Selection, and in good years, turns beautiful reds and purples.

One of my favorite underused plants is native mountain-ash (Sorbus scopulina).  While this may be most appropriate for mountain communities like mine, it is still a gorgeous plant.  I love how the pinnately compound leaves become a mosaic of greens and orange and reds in the fall.  The addition of orange berries can’t be beat!

Our native chokecherry is also no slouch when it comes to fall color.  Plus, it has glossy black edible berries to boot!  It can sucker quite a lot if grown in moist conditions, so beware.

Shrubs are great, but there are native perennials that provide color lower down.
Wild geraniums (Geranium viscosissimum and Geranium caespitosum) develop luminous red leaves in the fall.

Sulphur flower’s leaves turn bronze-red in the fall and are evergreen (ever-red?).  The rust-colored seed heads in the early fall provide a nice contrast.

Leafy cinquefoil (Drymocallis fissa) usually turns nice shades of red and green in the fall when it’s not too dry in August and September.  This year, it looks a little crispy since it’s been so long since it’s rained.

Little bluestem (Schizacyrium scoparium) is a fine grass for fall and winter interest.  The cultivar “Blaze” has been selected for particularly fine fall color.

This is just the beginning!  Get out there and look around, and enjoy the subtle and often not-so-subtle colors of a Colorado fall.

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