Uncommon Trees for Fall Color

Home Grown  by Keith Reed
Consider the following choices if you are looking for a plant to make a dramatic statement in the fall landscape. Full disclosure: Most of the plants on this list are outside the norm and some require specific sites/conditions to be grown successfully. Finding them available for sale may be a challenge but it will be worth the effort.

The first tree is actually a shrub. Raspberry Sundae Crapemyrtle, bred right here in Payne County by Dr. Carl Whitcomb, is a pink flowering crapemyrtle with outstanding fall color. While we are on the subject of Dr. Whitcomb’s selections, Powder Keg Caddo Sugar Maple is a beautiful medium sized tree as long as you have a site with good drainage.

The balance of these selections are presented by their approximate mature size, from the smallest in the landscape to the largest:
  • Possumhaw or deciduous holly. Ilex decidua. The “color” component of this multi-trunked plant is its brilliant red berries. Make sure you purchase the female plants. If it does not set berries after a few years, you may need to plant a male pollinator in the vicinity.
  • Amur maple ‘Flame’. Acer ginnala ‘Flame’. Sometimes grown as a multi-trunk. Benefits from afternoon shade and protection from south winds.
  • Shantung maple. Acer truncatum. A bit larger and more formal in appearance than amur. Also appreciates a bit of protection from harsh summers but will tolerate full sun.
  • Prairie Fire crabapple. Malus ‘Prairifire’. In addition to having nice fall color, this is one of the more disease-resistant crabapples for Oklahoma. The apples hang on well into the fall, adding to the late season beauty.
  • American smoketree. Cotinus obovatus. Another plant usually grown as a multi-trunk.
  • Paperbark maple. Acer griseum. This very slow growing maple is not for the faint-of-heart gardener. Plant this one for future generations. Needs heavy shade and wind protection. While the fall color is nice, this tree is renowned for its incredible cinnamon brown bark display.
  • Sassafras. Sassafras albidum. Payne County is the western limits of adaptation for this understory tree. The more closely your site resembles an eastern Oklahoma creekbottom, the more likely you are to be successful growing this one.
  • Ginkgo. Ginkgo biloba. Slow grower underutilized in our area. Considered a “living fossil”.
  • Tupelo or Black gum. Nyssia sylvatica. This slow growing tree has a reputation for being very hard to establish. It’s worth the trouble. For the last twenty five years, it has been one of the most reliably outstanding fall color trees at The Botanic Garden at OSU.
  • Fruitless sweetgum ‘Rotundiloba’. Liquidamber rotundifolia ‘Rotundiloba’. A standard sweetgum is one of our best trees for fall color but its shallow root system, propensity to sucker, and dreaded seed balls limit its landscape value. This one does not have the seedballs (with very rare exceptions), and does not seem to be quite as prone to surface rooting.
  • October Glory Red Maple. Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’. Not only is this an outstanding fall color tree, it is the best red maple for our climate. As with all thin-barked trees, protect the bark from winter sunscald the first several years.
  • Autumn Blaze maple. Acer freemanii ‘Jeffsred’. This fast growing cross between a red and silver maple is a good choice if you want a large maple in our area. Not a strong tree (branching structure, etc.) but a far better choice than a silver maple for a fast growing large tree.

For more information on this or any other horticultural topic, you can contact Keith Reed, the Horticulturist in the Payne County Extension office. Keith can be reached via email at
keith.reed@okstate.edu, phone at 405-747-8320, or in person at the Payne County Extension office, located at 315 W. 6th in Stillwater.

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