Small to Mid Size Native Trees for Fall Color

When homeowners consider adding a small tree to a landscape design they are most likely going to consider size and flowering. However, in order to create a high impact design, there is more to selecting a tree than these two qualifications. You should also think of the canopy shape, environmental needs and multi seasonal interest. Among the seasonal interest considerations should be fall color. While spring and summer offer gorgeous flowers, the autumn colors if a tree will also add beauty to a yard. Combining beautiful reds, yellows and other rich tones will keep your yard looking stunning as winter approaches. Native plants are often a good choice for their low maintenance value but many also offer colorful foliage displays once the weather cools. Here are a few suggestions for native trees which will add value to your landscape with brilliant fall foliage.


Dogwood – Dogwood trees are a favorite in the south for their beautiful spring flowers. They can also be a good choice for a small yard tree for the stunning fall leaf color of rich red and maroon. Another attractive feature is the late season red berries. Not only are they pretty, the fruit will attract birds to your garden.
Photo credit: James Gaither

American Fringe Tree – The abundant tassel like flowers in spring make this tree worth planting but the fall color is nothing to sneeze at. Autumn foliage on American Fringe Tree is a clear, bright yellow and stands out in a landscape design. Consider planting this with tree or shrub with red fall foliage and your yard will shine. Sourwood and viburnum nudum would be worthwhile companion plants.

Paw Paw – Our native paw paw tree is often overlooked as an ornamental yet it has so much going for it. The large leaves have a unique, tropical appearance and the fruit is edible. It is a low maintenance and adaptable tree for southern landscapes. Paw paw is also wildlife friendly and will be visited by birds, opossums, raccoons and squirrels as well as attracts the beautiful zebra swallowtail butterfly. The fall color is outstanding in bright yellow which will light up any area it is planted in.
Photo credit: John Winder

Sassafras – A lovely native tree for both ornamental and wildlife value, sassafras is a host plant spicebush butterfly. The mitten shaped leaves are unusual and attractive throughout the summer but in autumn this native tree really stands out. Colors can range from red, yellow to pastel pink and apricot all at the same time. As an added bonus the small blue berries late in the season are a songbird favorite.
Photo credit: Richard Bonnett

Serviceberry – A small native tree or shrub with delicate white flowers in spring and brilliant fall foliage of red, yellow and orange. Serviceberry is ideal for southern landscapes. It is easy to grow and adaptable plus the edible fruit in late summer offers you a sustainable landscape. You may harvest the berries for yourself or leave them for the birds.
Photo credit: Brian Crawford

Sourwood – Sourwood is among our prettiest native trees and one which is not planted enough in residential landscapes. It creates an eco friendly yard since the unique, finger like flowers in early summer are a pollinator favorite, then in summer the long, shiny green foliage adds texture to a landscape design. During the fall sourwood makes a statement in deep red and maroon as the dried flowers from summer highlight rich red tones, making this tree an autumn knockout.
Photo credit: Blue Ridge Kitties

Sumac – People tend to think of ‘poison’ when they think ‘sumac’ but there are over 35 native varieties in the US. Sumac is one of our unsung heroes of the ornamental garden and will provide an exotic looking tree with year round interest. The tall flower spires can reach over a foot long and both the flowers and seeds are attractive to wildlife. Pollinators are attracted to the blooms and birds relish the seeds. Fall colors are fiery and typically begin as yellow which changes to a burnt orange and eventually red. With the addition of the tall red seed pods above the foliage, sumac is an autumn winner.
Photo credit: Jack

Common Witch Hazel – Witch hazel is a large shrub which may easily be tree formed. The yellow, strap like flowers which appear in late fall to early winter are a welcomed sight when little else is in bloom. Witch Hazel also provides abundant fall interest with bright yellow to red foliage that remains on the branches over an extended period. An easy care plant for southern gardens, consider adding witch hazel to your landscape.
Photo credit: Steven Severinghaus

Also see our article on Mid Size Native Trees for Home Landscapes.

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