At this time of year, gardeners are looking for trees with impressive autumn colour. A tree that will brighten the garden as we get ever closer to the darker days of winter. The beauty of having autumn trees in the garden is that it spreads the season and brings colour to the garden during a time when most flowers have long since finished their display.
There is a perfect tree for every garden. Below is a selection of autumn trees that not only have great colour, but will suit small gardens and large gardens alike. Some present their colours early in the season and some later.
In the list, there are a few rare autumn trees amongst some well known types but all are suitable to grow in British and European gardens.
We recommend going to visit gardens to see the tree in situ, before you buy it. It’s the best way to get a real feel for its appearance and height – a key factor to consider when choosing a tree for your garden.
Why do trees change colour in autumn?
The beautiful reds, yellows and oranges that light up both our natural landscape and our gardens in autumn are brought on by several changes. the days are shorter and the nights cooler, even before the first frosts. There also tends to be additional ground moisture at this time of year.
As the tree begins to stop food production, the amount of green pigment in the leaf, which we know as chlorophyll reduces. The carotenoids (which produce the orange-yellow colours) and anthocyanins (which produce the reds and purples) become the stronger pigments, overwintering the green chlorophyll. This is what gives us the gorgeous, varied tints that we know as autumn colour.
However, the autumn colour on trees is variable and relies heavily on some late summer rain. It is probably the most difficult season to predict, as it is often spread over a period of at least three months and its never the same from year to year.
How to choose the perfect autumn tree
- Think how long you’re planning to stay in your current property and how patient you are.
- Ask your neighbours about their experience of growing trees in their gardens. You might also be able to complement each other’s planting. Eg. not all trees are self-fertile, so if you plant the female, they could plant the male.
- If you’re buying a young tree, check it’s not pot bound and look at its shape. Make sure the top is nice and straight, and that there are enough side branches.
- If you’re buying a grafted tree, ask which type of roos stock was used – this may affect the suitability of your soil type.
- Plant when the soil is moist and frost-free, and water regularly during dry spells in the first growing season (from when the tree starts to leaf up until the leaves fall in autumn). Don’t make it ‘lazy’ by over watering.
- Stake the tree immediately after planting. If you need to prune, do so just before bud burst in late spring, to avoid infection.
- As a rule of thumb a tree’s root system is as wide as its crown. Be aware that shallow-rooting trees may get in the way of other planting ideas, and don’t forget to factor in sewage and other pipes when deciding where to place the tree.
- It’s always best to buy trees and shrubs from a specialist supplier to get the best advice on choosing, placing and caring for the most appropriate tree for your garden. It’s also worth visiting nurseries and arboretums at different times of the year to find the right tree.
- Remember its ultimate size. Always for a tree of a scale and shape that can be accommodated within the space you have in mind.
The best autumn trees for colour
Stewartia pseudocamellia Koreana Group
Beautiful flaking, camouflage-style bark in shades of grey, brown and burnt ochre. Autumn colour ranges from darkest claret to bright orange. Prefers peaty conditions and light shade.
Height after ten years 3-5m. Ultimate height 12m. Ultimate spread 6m. Hardiness rating RHS H5, USDA 8a.
Mespilus germanica ‘Westerveld’
Prefers a sunny position and fertile soil. Green foliage in spring and summer and a coppery orange-yellow in autumn, Don’t gorge on fruit as the seeds are toxic when eaten in large quantities.
Height after 10 years 4-5m. Ultimate height 5-6m. Ultimate spread 4-6m. Hardiness rating RHS H4, USDA 5a.
Yellow flowers in spring and beautiful (medicinal) red fruits in September – October with vivid reddish brown leaves. Prefers dappled shade.
Height after 10 years 5m. Ultimate height 5m. Ultimate spread 5m. Hardiness rating RHS H4, USDA 8b/9a.
Fragrant, creamy-white flowers in late summer followed by pink and purple sepals, and bright-yellow leaves. Perfect for city and courtyard gardens, with full sun or dappled shade.
Height after 10 years 4m. Ultimate height 4-8m. Ultimate spread 2.5-4m. Hardiness rating RHS H5, USDA 7b-8a.
Styrax japonicus ‘Fargesii’
Bushy Japanese snowbell with finely pointed leaves that turn yellow and orange in autumn. Can be pruned and kept narrow.
Height after 10 years 5m. Ultimate height 8-12m. Ultimate spread 4-8m. Hardiness rating RHS H7, USDA 6a.
Perfect for a solitary position in not too small a garden. Young shoots are grey, with reddish-brown specks that disappear with time. Matte dark green leaves turn an orangey red in autumn.
Height after 10 years 6m. Ultimate height 8m. Ultimate spread 10m. Hardiness rating RHS H4, USDA 8b-9a.
Acer negundo ‘Winter Lightning’
Acers aren’t very obliging when it comes to pruning, but this box elder is the exception. Its feathery, light green leaves turn a soft brownish yellow in autumn. Prefers full sun in well-drained soil.
Height after 10 years 6m. Ultimate height 15m. Ultimate spread 12m. Hardiness rating RHS H7, USDA 6a.
Foliage is bronze in spring, dark green in summer and a vibrant red and yellow in autumn. A more compact version of Nyssa sylvatica, this grows well in moist, humus-rich soils. Needs sheltering from cold, dry winds.
Height after 10 years 4m. Ultimate height 8-12m. Ultimate spread More than 8m. Hardiness rating RHS H6, USDA 7a.
Cornus kousa ‘Teutonia’
Slow growing when young, this dogwood will speed up after a few years then slow down again. Beautiful and ornamental with white, flowers speckled with pink, dark red autumn colour and pink fruits. Will succeed in any soil of good or moderate fertility, but dislikes shallow, chalky soils. Suits small gardens.
Height after 10 years 2.5m. Ultimate height 5m. Ultimate spread 3m. Hardiness rating RHS H7, USDA 6a.
This paperbark maple sheds its shiny orange-brown skin in the thinnest of layers. The leaves produce a firework display of autumn colours, from scarlet pink to crimson red. Will do well in any soil, unless well-drained. Mind planting distance to walls, given its spreading silhouette.
Height after 10 years 6m. Ultimate height 12m. Ultimate spread 8m. Hardiness rating RHS H5, USDA 7b-8a.
Prunus serrula ‘Branklyn’
This slender, upright and round-headed tree has a gorgeous trunk, with shiny coppery brown bark that sheds in paper thin strips. White flowering, with narrow willow-like leaves that turn yellow in autumn. Flowers and leaves pale in comparison to that beautiful glossy bark. Needs full sun.
Height after 10 years 5m. Ultimate height 8-12m. Ultimate spread More than 8m. Hardiness rating RHS H7, USDA 6a.
The epaulette tree is a moderate to fast grower, with a bumpy brown bark on its – generally multiple – stems. Around May to June it is covered in snowy drifts of fragrant white flowers, which will produce loads of hairy stone fruits in autumn among golden yellow leaves. Requires a good loamy soil and a sunny position. Perfect as a specimen.
Height after 10 years 5m. Ultimate height 12m. Ultimate spread 12m. Hardiness rating RHS H7, USDA 6a.
On chalky soil don’t forget our medium-sized native field maple, which we see lighting up hedgerows in October and November with its bright yellow shades. Also happy in heavy clay or acid soil.
Height 10m. Spread 7m.
Great for late autumn fruits, the Japanese rowan is one of the last to hang on to its leaves and berries, almost into December. On a bright, sunny day the fiery orange autumn colours resemble a bonfire in the garden.
Height 10m. Spread 7m.
Fraxinus americana ‘Autumn Purple’
This large white ash is one of the first to change colour, with reddish-purple leaf shades, usually around the end of September.
Height 18m. Spread 12m.
The tupelo from North America is probably the most popular medium-sized tree to plant by water, for its rich scarlet autumn foliage. It grows slowly.
Height 20m. Spread 10m.