Growbag Blog

Which trees produce the best autumn colour?


Hey folks, we need some good news and here it comes! It is going to be a GORGEOUS autumn! When it’s not pelting or a Force 10 gale, we should get outside and revel in what is shaping up to be a fabulously colourful few weeks.

Let’s just feast our eyes on the glory of a UK autumn and be thankful for living in a country that changes so beautifully with the seasons. It’s another thing to add to the Gratefulness Diary that we are all supposed to be keeping to ward off despondency and hopelessness – adding a new item each day, even it’s only that Strictly is back on our screens again, or that you found a handy bar of Cadbury’s Whole Nut while you were looking for the scissors……………

The fact is that climatic conditions play a big part in the phenomenon of autumn colour. I was fascinated to read that the lovely warm spring without late frosts meant that this is now a ‘mast year’, according to Forestry England. It’s when ALL the nation’s trees go bonkers at the same time, and produce more nuts, acorns and fruit than can ever be eaten by foraging creatures; ‘safety in numbers’, and more saplings get the chance to develop. Don’t you think that that is totally wonderful! It makes me think of all the Ents having a Moot in Fanghorn Forest and then storming Isengard in Lord of the Rings…

There are some go-to trees and shrubs if you’re after an autumnal blaze. The stag’s horn sumach (Rhus typhina) must be one of the most well-known – its jagged leaves at the time of year could surely astonish and delight even the most jaded of 2020-doom merchants. It is a horrendous tree for producing suckers, though – have you noticed how you never see just one? One to admire in other people’s gardens, perhaps, rather than grow it in your own?

The Persian ironwood tree (Parrotia persica ) is much easier to manage in a small garden and its October/November finery is a fabulous spectacle.

Parrotia persica – a gorgeous small tree out on the catwalk in autumn

A medlar tree (Mespilus germanica) is a bit of a rarity these days – I wonder if it’s anything to do with the fruits looking like cats’ bottoms and tasting like sweet mud? Nevertheless, a medlar is a very pretty thing to have in the garden in both spring and autumn.

A medlar tree – extremely odd fruit but a lovely sight in autumn.

And if you want a truly extraordinary and unearthly picture, plant Callicarpa bodinieri ‘Profusion’ – the brilliant purple berries among the turning leaves may even blow your mind a little!

Callicarpa berries to blow your mind!

I made a short video on the subject of good plants for autumn colour a while ago, if you’d like a few more suggestions. Link is at the end.

I suppose I’d better hand you over to Laura now, to drone on about the science for a bit – here’s hoping she’s got some great plant suggestions as well…………………….


For botanists like us this is a very exciting autumn! Millennia ago, deciduous trees took the evolutionary pathway of closing up shop for the winter, withdrawing green chlorophyll from their leaves when light levels dropped, and revealing background beige and yellow carotenes before falling off.

If the autumn is cool and damp, but not frosty, some tree taxa carry out further chemical recycling resulting in those gorgeous red and orange compounds of anthocyanin, and this year’s weather pattern has made these particularly intense. Of course the science won’t interest E and C that much, but I know that they’ve noticed the exceptional colour-fest this autumn. So what trees are really pulling out all the stops …..?

The most stunning autumn performer in my garden at the moment is Hamamelis ‘Diane’ (as in our feature pic) – all the more exciting as she doesn’t reliably put on such a show so it feels like a real treat to see her having such a flamboyant fling.

Hamamelis autumn colour
How thrilling to think of all the chemical reactions taking place in this one hamamelis leaf

If you don’t have space for a spreading witch hazel, try the smaller Fothergilla major. With me it has never missed putting on a fantastic autumn display since I planted it, and a much better option for a small garden than Elaine’s Parrotia suggestion. Parrotia may look like a lovely small tree to Elaine now, but that’s because she has only recently planted it – I’ve seen it as a socking great tree in more mature gardens …

Fothergillia major
Fothergilla – a neat little shrub with cute scented bottle brush flowers in spring and reliable autumnal colour.

Another multi-purpose shrub would be the blueberry, sweet blossom in spring, lovely fresh berries in summer and fiery reds and yellows in the autumn.

Vaccinium blueberry
Blueberry bushes colour up beautifully but what a shame we can’t see a photo of a wild one.

Blueberries belong to the genus Vaccinium which all colour up well in the autumn. Knowing that Caroline was travelling north to her cottage in the highlands this week I asked her to stop off in the Cairngorms and photograph a blaeberry, Scotland’s wild vaccinium, and was slightly disappointed with her answer of ‘wot’s that then?’


Well, what would you have said if someone had asked you to go and photograph a wild vaccinium? – exactly. No, as usual, you can count on me for the best tips in this blog. Instead of gazing at trees and booking Waitrose slots (L and E), I’m physically in Tesco, where this week I spotted a stack of Callicarpa going for £10 each. I know, I know we want to support independent nurseries but my local outlet doesn’t have any of these purple-berried belters that Elaine was extolling. And guys, if we give Tesco another week, we’ll maybe get them for a fiver!

Here in Scotland we might have small disappointments such as the prospect of a digital Christmas (which translates as ‘just sleep through to Boxing Day’ for most of us), but our acid soil does mean we have a profusion of fab-u-lous rowan trees both domesticated and wild, lighting up the landscape. Just look as this Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ up the lane from me.

Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ just one of the many rowans that love life in Scotland.

And E & L won’t mention them, I think they feel they are passé, but could we just get a shout out for acers. The flaming reds and golds of these Japanese maples are bringing Hollywood-level drama to just about every (sheltered) UK garden right now. Yes, autumn colours are lifting our spirits and they need to. I doubt that when one of Hollywood’s biggest femmes fatales Greta Garbo said ‘I want to be alone’ she actually had Christmas morning in mind!

The link to Elaine’s video on autumn colour is here.

And do check out Louise’s strikingly attractive plant choice for this week.

NB If you’d like a bit more gardening chit-chat from the3growbags, just enter your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

3 replies on “Which trees produce the best autumn colour?”

I have to agree with Laura on the Parrotia. I planted one for its autumn hues in my last garden, but five years on it had to be removed. It’s a really spreading tree, takes up masses of room. Much more so than the slow growing and spectacular Hamamelis. Not all of the Witch Hazels are great in autumn. My ‘Jelena’ is a muddy brown colour, but my ‘Arnold Promise’ is fantastic. Sorbus ‘Joseph Rock’ is one of my favourites and this year I added two to my garden. But the best of all my new additions this year is Amelanchier canadensis ‘Rainbow Pillar’ which is still hanging on to its spectacular multi-coloured foliage in mid-November. And of course you get the pretty white flowers very early on and lovely black berries which the birds love, although they are also edible for humans if you can dissuade the birds from pinching them before they are fully ripe, but I have never managed it. It’s a great garden tree and never outgrows its welcome. Lovely blog as usual ladies. 🙂

Thank you, Sylvia! Elaine here. It means a lot to us when folk bother to write in and tell us we’re doing okay. In fact, every time we wonder why we are doing all this work (in amongst all the laughs we have, of course…..), someone contacts us and gives us the thumbs-up – just the fillip we need to keep going! Happy gardening!

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