Autumn Foliage Trees

As the season changes from summer to autumn, days become shorter and cooler. These changing conditions encourage trees that are deciduous in winter (that is drop their leaves) to develop colourful foliage. The colours appear as the tree ceases photosynthesis and removes starches from its leaves to store in preparation for winter dormancy.

Trees with autumn leaves bring seasonal colour and interest to gardens. Foliage colour ranges from yellow, orange and brown tones through every shade of red to dark burgundy and claret.

In small gardens, select dwarf, columnar or compact forms of these larger trees. There are some smaller species and varieties that can be grown even in small gardens. Check with local hardware and garden centres for trees that suit your location. Good choices for small trees for autumn colour include:

  • Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) In the ground or a pot, they showcase spectacular, vibrant colourful foliage
  • Crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) Beautiful colour even in warm temperate and coastal areas
  • Forest pansy (Cercis canadensis) It has heart-shaped burgundy leaves that change throughout the season are a feature of this tree.
  • Crabapples (for example Malus ioensis) This is a tree for all seasons, pink blossom in spring, fruit in summer and beautiful leaf colour in autumn and bare winter branches.

These choices are suited to large gardens with heaps of space, as these trees need room to spread out and grow:

  • Liquidambar (Liquidambar styraciflua) This tree has beautiful finely-toothed leaves with shades of red, orange and purple during autumn
  • Maple (Acer) They provide a beautiful shade tree in summer and have brilliant foliage of red, yellow and orange in autumn
  • Poplar (Populus) Silver-grey foliage that turns a beautiful yellow in autumn are a feature of the poplar
  • Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) Aptly named for its beautiful tulip-shaped green leaves throughout spring and summer and its rich golden-yellow leaves in autumn
  • Nyssa (Nyssa sylvatica) Deep green leaves in spring to summer which turn yellow, orange and red before falling in autumn are features of this popular tree
  • Ash (Fraxinus) Two striking examples are:
    • Claret Ash (Fraxinus ‘Raywoodii’) The claret ash is named because the deep green leaves in spring and summer, turning a lighter yellow-green, then deep claret in autumn
    • Golden Ash (Fraxinus excelsior ‘Aurea’) Features of the golden ash are yellow leaves that turn green in spring and summer then golden yellow in autumn
  • Oak (Quercus) Depending on the variety, spring and summer green leaves of oak trees turn yellow, orange or red in autumn depending on variety

As these trees drop their leaves during autumn and winter avoid planting where they overhang ponds, gutters or hedges that are hard to keep clear of debris. Lawns, paths and nearby surfaces will need regular raking or cleaning. Autumn leaves contain valuable nutrients that can be composted and used on gardens. 

Growing conditions

Aspect Trees grown for autumn foliage need a sheltered but sunny location. Ideally shelter from hot summer winds that can burn foliage and reduce the overall appearance of the autumn show. Allow room for the tree to grow upwards and the branches to spread outwards so the trees natural form and colour can be enjoyed.

Soil Autumn trees grow in a wide range of soils but do best in soil enriched with home-made compost and organic matter and/or Seasol Super Compost before planting. Most also need good drainage and adequate watering especially in spring as they regrow their leaves.

Climate The best autumn colours are seen in cool to cold climates with distinct seasons such as mountain areas and cold southern regions in Australia. Colours begin to appear in early autumn but some trees may not fully colour until late autumn or even early winter in temperate zones.

General care

Watering Adequate and regular watering is important especially in spring as conditions warm and leaves regrow and also in areas with dry summers. Plants growing in containers also need regular watering.

Feeding and mulching Trees can be feed via your preferred method, either liquid or granular food or a combination of both, depending on your tree variety. Keep plants growing well with a granular fertilizer such as Seasol plus Nutrients All Purpose including Natives every 6 to 8 weeks during the growing season. Spread under the dripline of the tree (the area at the edge of the foliage canopy) as this is where the feeder roots are located. Remember to water it in thoroughly after application If you prefer liquid feeding, apply PowerFeed All Purpose including Natives every 2 to 4 weeks during the growing season, around the drip line of the tree’s canopy.

Spread organic mulch such composted bark or inorganic mulch such as gravel under trees to deter weed competition and retain moisture. Mulches are a good option where grass or plants struggle to grow. Don’t build mulch up around the trunk as this can cause fungal problems for the tree.

Pruning Prune to shape when trees are small. Encourage a single trunk.

Watch for Possums may damage some deciduous trees especially maples when they are re-leafing in spring. Where possums or browsing animals such as wallabies or stock are a problem, fence to protect young or vulnerable trees.