Small Fall Native Trees

Aah…Beautiful autumn in Northeast Georgia. As I’m out and about these days, I’m thinking about how so much of the splendid fall color we see is from the big native trees…in the big-picture landscapes. You know, national forest lands and public parks, undeveloped rural acreage along the highways and mature, old-growth neighborhoods (not the people, silly, the trees!). I like the idea of scaling down those panoramic vistas to showcase some of our fall gems a little closer to home, where we can appreciate them from the window or the porch.

Here are five of my favorite small native trees that put on a great fall show you can enjoy in your own home landscape without having to crane your neck to see the treetops.




























Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)

This flamboyant native tree has a show-stopping crown of red, pink, purple and burgundy leaves in the fall. It tops out at 25-30 feet tall and 15-20 feet wide, a great size for a specimen tree. While it’s appreciated for its fall color, it’s no slouch the rest of the year. It produces small, elegant, bell-shaped flowers that hang from drooping “spikes” in June and July. And its floral nectar is the namesake of that dreamy sourwood honey you can pick up at farmers markets and roadside stands in Northeast Georgia. Even the chunky-textured, gray-brown bark of the native sourwood tree is handsome.

Courtesy Kurt Wagner,NC State Extension

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

If you’re looking for something kind of funky for your fall landscape, consider a native witch hazel tree. Its bright yellow, spidery, four-petal flowers will be welcome bloomers in November, when most of the color is long gone from the yard. And they have a pleasant, light fragrance. The foliage comes in bright green in the spring and stays attractive through the summer, turning yellow and orange in autumn before falling off to make way for the unique flowers to grace the bare branches. The native witch hazel grows to about 15-30 feet tall, with about the same size spread, in Northeast Georgia.

The witch hazel tree doesn’t just rely on its good looks to get by. It has been believed to have magical powers throughout the ages, and the tannins in its bark, twigs and leaves give it benefits in skin astringents, topical anti-inflammatories and anti-bacterials, among many other uses.

Courtesy of David Stephens,


American holly (Ilex opaca)

If you choose to plant native American holly trees in your yard, you’ll be richly rewarded all year long, but especially during the fall and winter months, when a profusion of bright, scarlet red berries will fill your heart, and quite possibly your home, with cheer. To get the berries, you’ll need to understand how hollies propagate and plant accordingly. Hollies are dioecious, that is, male and female flowers are on separate plants, and only the female flowers will bear those gorgeous berry-like fruits. That means when you plant a “fruitful” female, you’ll need to make sure there’s a male within around 200 feet, whether you plant it on your own property or share bees with a male tree nearby in the wild or in a neighbor’s yard. A reputable garden center will usually have labeled hollies.

The dense, pyramid shape and deep-green evergreen boughs of the American holly make it a winner for a natural screen or centerpiece in the landscape. It will typically grow as tall as 20 feet in Northeast Georgia, with a 20-35-foot spread.

Courtesy of John Ruter, University of Georgia,

Downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)

The serviceberry tree is said to have been named for its springtime characteristics—Appalachian tradition called for memorial services to coincide with the blooming of the trees’ lovely, small, white flowers. But the fall traits of the serviceberry are just as noteworthy. Leaves of gold to orange and rusty-red to purple make it a great choice for a focal point in the autumn landscape.

To round out its full, three-season showing, the serviceberry puts out purple-blue berries (technically pomes, as apples are) in the summer that you’ll have to share with the birds if you want to try making some delicious, old-fashioned muffins, scones, pies and jams. The native downy serviceberry tree grows 15-25 feet tall and has a 15-20 foot spread in most of Northeast Georgia. It has an open, airy branch structure that invites the planting of flowers around the base.

Courtesy Franklin Bonner, USFS (ret.),

Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)

If you love the iconic southern magnolia tree but can’t imagine how the massive specimen it would become could fit—literally or design-wise—into your landscape, I have just the tree for you. The native sweetbay is a more petite version of the southern magnolia, measuring just 15-20 feet, with a typical spread of 10-20 feet in Northeast Georgia. Proving that size isn’t everything, the sweetbay magnolia produces smaller, but magnificent, fragrant, white flowers from May through much of the summer that create plenty of drama against the backdrop of the tree’s lush greenery. Then, in fall, the clustered, scarlet red, berry-like fruits will make your landscape the yard of the month for squirrels, turkey and many species of songbirds.

It may lose some leaves in our area in the fall and winter, especially in the coldest spots, but the the sweetbay is considered evergreen, and its color will be a welcome sight among the bare hardwood branches throughout the winter.

I promised to share five of my favorite small, native trees in Northeast Georgia’s fall landscape, but when I came across this one, I couldn’t resist adding it to my list.

The Cat Tree

The cat tree! This one appears to be an orange, tabby mackerel. The perfect complement to any fall landscape.

Fall is the best time to plant many species of trees. So why not plant a tree this season that will add to your fall landscape for many autumns to come? If you don’t see what you’re looking for in your garden center, ask for it. Or get in touch with me…I’ll be glad to help you find the right tree for your home.

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