We are finally having a run of cool nights and crisp mornings so there is finally some evidence of fall foliage color here in Central Texas. After detailing trees with good fall foliage color, I’ll move on to shrubs which also shine in this season.
The American Smoke Tree (Cotinus obovatus) is a small, deciduous native tree (or large, upright shrub) growing up to 20 feet or more tall and wide. It is adaptable to wide range of soils, including poor rocky soils and even clay. The common name comes from the billowy “hairs” that follow the insignificant spring flowers. In summer these clusters turn a smoky pink to purplish pink and appear as smoke-like puffs. The bluish green leaves turn a variety of colors in the fall, including yellow, red, orange, and reddish purple. Planted in full sun to part-shade, this large shrub is deer tolerant. It requires only occasional watering in very dry seasons.
Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) is another large shrub, very open and irregular to 8-15’ tall, and spreads by roots suckers to form large colonies in the wild. For this reason it is best not located in garden beds where it may take over the existing plants, rather in open areas on more naturalistic rural properties. The stems are smooth with large, dark-green compound leaves that give it a ferny appearance. Tiny late-spring flowers develop into red fruit clusters, which are attractive to wildlife. In fall the foliage turns orange then scarlet to deep red before the leaves drop.
Evergreen sumac (Rhus virens) grows on dry hillsides and rocky bluffs and slopes of the Edwards Plateau, but will also grow in other well-drained soils in Central Texas. Growing to 8’ H x 10’ W, it has lustrous, leathery dark green compound leaves which become tinged with maroon or yellow in cold weather. In full sun it grows into large, dense rounded clumps, but in shadier sites will be more open and tree-like. Because of its evergreen foliage, it can be used as a screen or background for other plants. It blooms in late summer with honey-scented white flowers, soon followed by red fuzzy fruit enjoyed by birds and small mammals. It is not very deer tolerant unless protected until foliage grows above the browse line.
Carolina Buckthorn (Rhamnus caroliniana) is another small tree/large shrub (to 15’ H x W), native to the eastern half of Texas. There it is usually found in bottomlands in shade and acid soil, but it also occasionally is found further west into the Hill Country in full sun. It is relatively drought-tolerant once established. The leaves are dark green with pale beneath, and spring flowers are followed by red fruits that ripen to black in fall. The entirety of leaves do not turn color in autumn, rather some leaves turn a burnished red intermixed with the green of summer.
One of my favorite native plants for this area is Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). My land in the Lost Pines is rampant with this shrub, which returned quickly from root sprouts following the wildfire of 2011. It grows in shade to part-sun, as an open and spreading shrub reaching as much as 6-9’ high and wide. Inconspicuous pale pink early summer flowers mature to iridescent magenta berries in fall, providing food for birds and small animals. It is very drought-tolerant and survives deer browsing it, as well. Fall foliage color goes from yellow green to pale yellow over time.
There are a couple of non-native shrubs that also provide good fall foliage color. One is the Japanese Barberry, which matures to 3-6 ‘ high x wide, and has purplish foliage that turns to red and orange before falling. It sports bright yellow flowers in clusters in spring, and bright red berries in fall. Be sure to plant only the cultivars with ‘Atropurpurea’ in the name, as other types can be invasive. Some of these include ‘Crimson Pygmy’ growing only to 2’ H x W, and ‘Rose Glow’, a newer cultivar with red-purple foliage, mottled with pink. Plants require a very well-drained soil and are relatively drought-tolerant.
The last shrub I’ll mention is the Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). This plant is an upright, rounded, suckering, multi-stemmed shrub that typically grows 4-6' (less frequently to 8') tall. The large dark green leaves turn shades of red, orange, yellow, and burgundy in fall. It is native to the Southeastern U.S., but not Texas. Early summer flowers are white and carried in large, conical panicles. This type of Hydrangea is much more drought-tolerant than most other Hydrangeas, but requires a very well-draining soil and intermittent water in dry seasons. They look good planted as foundation shrubs and in groups in a woodland garden, but cannot tolerate afternoon sun in southern climates.