By Nancy Buley, Communications Director, J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.
Photographs courtesy of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.
Red hot summer days inspire the planting of shade trees that deliver red hot fall color. Our article in the August issue of In the Dirt gave a High Five for Cooler, Healthier Landscapes. Big shade trees and their many environmental and health benefits were featured. Continuing with the shade theme, this month we feature a handful of smaller-scale shade trees that present lush green foliage in summer and then when autumn rolls around, they crank up the visual heat by turning bright red to red orange. Big enough to cast significant shade, they are small enough at maturity (25-40’) to be a good fit for our modern landscapes and streetscapes.
Shantung x Norway maple is a match made in shade tree heaven, with their hybrid offspring combining the best characteristics of both species. Shantung maple (Acer truncatum) brings bright fall color, heat and drought tolerance and compact form, while Norway maple (A. platanoides) contributes symmetrical form, upright growth habit and more tree-like form.
Pacific Sunset® Maple (‘Warrenred’), top photo, is a proven performer and is widely planted across the continent. Deep green, glossy leaves are heat and tatter-resistant and turn bright red in autumn. About 30’ tall and 25’ wide at maturity. Choose Norwegian Sunset® Maple (‘Keithsform’) for pumpkin orange fall tones. Urban Sunset® Maple, bottom photo, is relatively narrow and upright and is well suited for street tree use. Ruby Sunset® Maple is a newer cultivar with fall color that lives up to its name – ruby red to orange red. The most “Shantung-like” of the hybrids, it sports smaller leaves than the others, and matures at a smaller size – about 25’ tall x 20’ wide.
Main Street® and Fire Dragon® Shantung maples are outstanding cultivars of the species. Selected in North Carolina and Texas, respectively, they can be counted on to flaunt bright red fall colors across a wide range of climates and growing conditions including drought and high summer temperatures.
Red Rocket Maple (Acer rubrum ‘Red Rocket’), above, is among the narrowest and most cold hardy of the red maples, thanks to its Minnesota origin. Dark green summer foliage erupts to fiery red to red orange in autumn as it grows slowly to a height of about 40’ and width of 15’. It is also seedless. This one is likely hard to find in garden centers because of its slow growth habit, but patience is rewarded as it grows into a beautiful, very narrow shade tree.
Frontier Elm (Ulmus ‘Frontier’) offers fall color that is rarely seen in the species. While the autumn leaves of most elms merely turn yellow before drifting to the ground, the small, glossy, dark green leaves of Frontier elm turn a rich burgundy color. The long-lasting show of reddish-purple foliage is particularly striking as it appears fairly late in the season, after most maples and ash have defoliated. This handsome and disease resistant hybrid elm was introduced by the U.S. National Arboretum.
Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) does double duty as a flowering tree of late summer and a colorful scene stealer in the fall garden. Cascades of white blooms mature into pendulous clusters of golden-brown flower stalks that are layered above the deep green leaves that turn to brilliant red to red orange tones. Rather slow growing, it reaches a height of about 25’ x 15’ wide.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) will keep you guessing as it delights you with its independent character. Grown from seed, its variable genetics make its mature size, form, fall color and even its leaf shape rather unpredictable. Green through the summer months, the fall color of the mitten-shaped leaves can range from brilliant red to orange and occasionally yellow, but always beautiful. This tough and adaptable Northeastern native tree tolerates dry sites and alkaline soils. Its small, dark blue fruits borne on bright red stalks are very attractive to wildlife.
Black Tupelo is a variable species from which a growing number of outstanding cultivars have been selected. Fall color of trees grown from seedlings may range from red to orange or a mix of yellows and maroons. Choose cultivars for dependably bright red to orange red fall color.
Typically larger at maturity than the other species featured herein, tupelo cultivars may grow to about 30-45’ in height while maintaining an upright oval form that will cast plenty of cool shade. True to its name, Firestarter®, top photo, leads the way in the fall color parade, followed by Red Rage® and Gum Drop®. Green Gable® and Afterburner®, bottom photo, bring up the rear with their long-lasting, bright fall color. Choose Afterburner®, a female cultivar, if you want to attract birds to your garden. You’ll enjoy the handsome purplish-blue fruits until hungry songbirds swoop in to pick its branches clean.
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