Top Five Trees for Fall Color in Northern California

If you think your autumn garden looks a bit blah now is the time to act. The soil is still warm. Plant transpiration rates are down due to shorter daylight hours. Sales abound at plant nurseries. The rainy season is coming soon too. Fall is the best time to install new trees and shrubs in our marvelous Mediterranean climate.

Like 33% of the population fall is my favorite season. There is nothing quite like a hillside of brilliantly colored red, orange and yellow trees glowing in the gentle autumn light. Sadly, that sight is not common in California. Most of our native plants aren’t so showy this time of year. But there are many trees and shrubs that grow well in this area, don’t hog a lot of water and put on a good autumnal show.


By Tomomarusan (Own work) [GFDL CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Persimmon (Diospyros kaki).
This gorgeous modest sized 20-30-foot tree dazzles us with its bright orange leaves and its delicious fruit. The orange fruit ripens late after the leaves have fallen to the ground and put on a fiery display of their own. “Fuyu” is one of the most popular cultivars with its apple-firm flesh.

By Reggaeman [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis).
Chinese Pistache trees can grow up to 45-feet tall. They sport an expansive range of vibrant fall colors – reds, oranges, yellows – depending on the cultivar you choose. Birds love the little pinkish-red berries. Consider a Chinese Pistache if you are looking for a shade tree. They make well behaved street trees too. 

By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Ginkgo / Maidenhair Tree (Ginkgo biloba).
Ginkgos are famous for their unique fan shaped leaves that sizzle yellow in fall. There are many cultivars. Some grow tall and narrow. Others are more wide spreading. The dwarf cultivar “Jade Butterflies” grows very, very slowly to 12 feet. Female ginkgo trees have extremely stinky fruit so watch out if you get a seedling from a friend. This typically isn’t a problem at plant nurseries since they weed out female specimens.

By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica). Some people love Crape Myrtles. Others are tired of them. They are very common trees. There are many reasons why we see these trees all over California. They have beautiful bark. They grow relatively fast. They come in many different flower colors and bloom for months on end. They have very nice fall call – orangey-red. I’m a fan of these well-behaved, water-wise, fall-friendly trees. Check out the cultivars on line. They are delicious.

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum).
I love Japanese maples for their delicate leaves, their soothing bark and their gentle form. They come in many sizes, shapes and colors. Pruning a Japanese maple is a joy. I enjoy teasing out a naturalistic form from a long forgotten specimen. The widely popular red leaf types contrast beautifully with the greenery around them. Japanese maples are also known for spectacular fall color. For the best fall color I recommend you choose a green leafed Japanese maple and enjoy the dramatic color transformation as the season progresses. Read Amy Campion’s blog if you want to be inspired about Japanese maple fall color choices.

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