Best Shrubs for Fall Leaf Color

For outstanding fall color in your garden, plant a variety of shrubs that put on a showy display.

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Witch Hazel Leaves
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Vernal Witch Hazel

Vernal witch hazel, Hamamelis vernalis, provides a bright spot of yellow foliage in fall. This large shrub, which grows eight to 10 feet tall and wide, also provides cover for birds and has some of the earliest flowers in late winter. You’ll often smell the pleasantly scented flowers before you see them.

Hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture Hardiness Zones 5 through 8, vernal witch hazel does best in well-drained soil and full sun or partial shade. It really pops in the landscape when planted where evergreens or a dark-colored building contrast with its foliage.

Two other great features of this large shrub? Deer usually leave it alone, and it’s native to the United States.

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Hydrangea quercifolia
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Oakleaf Hydrangea

You might plant an oakleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, for the big cream-colored blooms, called panicles, made up of many small flowers. It offers outstanding fall color in shades of dark red and burgundy.

Oakleaf hydrangea gets its name from the shape of its leaves. Native to the U.S., most varieties are hardy in USDA Zones 5 through 9. It grows best in part shade and well-drained soil. Size varies. Some, like ‘Toy Soldier,‘ grow just four to five feet tall and wide. Others, like ‘Alice,‘ can be up to 12 feet tall.

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View of fothergilla major, the large witch alder tree branch
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Dwarf Fothergilla

When I saw the fall color on dwarf fothergilla, Fothergilla gardenii, I knew I wanted to grow it in my garden. Hardy in Zones 5 through 9, it displays yellow, red and orange leaves all on one shrub.

Dwarf fothergilla is well-named because it only grows up two to three feet tall and wide. Native to the U S., it prefers acidic soil and full sun or part shade. In spring, it has white bottle-brush shaped flowers.

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Virginia Sweetspire
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Virginia Sweetspire

Another great native shrub for fall color is Virginia sweetspire, Itea virginica. It isn’t too fussy about where it grows, tolerating everything from shade to full sun and a variety of soil conditions in Zones 4 though 9.

In the fall, it transforms from an unassuming green shrub to a red foliage standout. Varieties include ‘Henry’s Garnet,‘ which can grow five feet tall and six feet wide, and ‘Little Henry,‘ closer to three feet tall and round. Sweetspire also blooms in early summer with white bottlebrush-shaped flowers that attract a variety of pollinators.

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Arrowwood Viburnum
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Arrowwood Viburnum

The arrowwood virburnum, Viburnum dentatum, offers good fall color and attractive dark blue berries, which birds devour. Depending on the variety, this native shrub can grow up to 10 feet tall; yearly pruning will keep it smaller.

You can grow arrowwood viburnums in Zones 4 through 8, in full sun to part shade and well-drained soil. The dark green leaves turn shades of red and burgundy in the fall.

To ensure good fruiting, plant two varieties for cross-pollination. Popular varieties often planted together are Chicago Lustre, which grows up to 10 feet tall and ‘Blue Muffin,’ which grows up to seven feet tall.

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Oregon-grapes with leaves starting to wither..also called Mahonia aquifolium, Berberis aquifolium, Barbery, Oregon Grape-Holly
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Oregon Grape Holly

As its name implies, Oregon Grape Holly, Mahonia aquifolium, is native to the Pacific Northwest. This shrub grows in Zones 5 through 9 in full sun to part shade, rising to three to six feet tall. A compact variety grows up to three feet tall.

As a shrub, it tends to spread and grow wider over time. Cutting off runners that emerge away from the base of the shrub keeps it to a smaller width.

The dark green foliage turns purplish and mahogany in the fall and winter, and will stay on the plant until new foliage emerges in the spring. Oregon grape holly has yellow flowers in spring and forms blue berries by late summer. The berries are tart but edible. Birds love them.

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Blueberry plant leaves in autumn (close-up)
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Highbush Blueberries

With highbush blueberries, Vaccinium corymbosum, you can have your fruit and good fall color, too, in Zones 5 through 8. Just make sure you have acidic, well-drained soil in a sunny spot.

The foliage turns an orange-red color in the fall. These shrubs will grow up to six feet tall and four feet wide.

For fruit production, plant more than one shrub. Varieties like ‘Legacy’ will self-pollinate but do better when there’s more than one shrub. Or pair it with another variety like ‘Bluecrop,‘ hardy in Zones 4 through 7 with good fall color.

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Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) in autumn with ripening fruits and colorful leaves.
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Red Chokeberry

Known for its red fall foliage, the Red Chokeberry, Aronia arbutifolia, is another big, native shrub that stands out when its leaves change from green to orange-red.

These shrubs, hardy in Zones 4 through 9, can grow up to 10 feet tall and five feet wide. They do well in full sun or part-shade and also tolerate wet soil. You can let them grow naturally or keep them pruned to create a privacy screen.

Red chokeberry will bring in bees when blooming and birds once the berries ripen. To ensure the best fall color, choose a named variety, like ‘Brilliantissima.

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Rhus aromatica (fragrant sumac) red leaves
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Fragrant Sumac

Fragrant Sumac, Rhus aromatica, will spread to become six to eight feet across and two to three feet tall. It won’t take many plants to fill in a large area and provide a fantastic fall display when the foliage turns from dark green to purple tinged with orange.

Hardy in Zones 3 through 9, Fragrant Sumac grows well in various soils, in full sun or part shade. Choose a named variety like Gro-Low Sumac and plant it where it can spread out. Its bonus feature: Deer don’t usually eat it.

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Macro shot of beautiful red rosehip fruits (rosa rugosa) covered with white early morning frost. Shot at the end of autumn
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Rugosa Rose

You can have roses in late spring and summer and great foliage color in the fall with the Rugosa Rose, Rosa rugosa.

This rose is not one of those fussy ones that needs a lot of care. They’re tough and will grow under a variety of conditions in Zones 3 through 9 — some even in Zone 2. They come in several flower colors, including pink and white.

When choosing a variety, make sure it isn’t one bred to reduce the size of the rose hips. You’ll get a great foliage and fruit display from your Rugosa Rose when the leaves turn orange and red in fall.

Carol J. Michel
Carol J. Michel is an award-winning author of several books including five gardening humor books and one children's book. As the holder of degrees from Purdue University in both horticulture and computer technology, she spent over three decades making a living in healthcare IT while making a life in her garden. She started writing about gardening on her blog called May Dreams Gardens which lead to numerous magazine articles, her books, and a podcast called The Gardenangelists. She was recently named a GardenComm Fellow by Garden Communicators International.