UNITED STATES—Sweetgum, flowering pear and Chinese pistache are the most reliable trees for flashy autumn foliar color, especially in such mild climates. They may not seem like it this year though. After a late start, only sweetgum is coloring well. Flowering pear trees that are beginning to show color farther inland seem to lack their typical bright yellow and orange, and are showing more dark rusty red.
Like so many flowers that bloom in spring, foliar color in autumn is as variable as the weather. Temperature and humidity can either inhibit or enhance color. It is impossible to say what caused the disappointing color so far, or if foliage that colors later will be just as bland. A sudden chill could change things for Chinese pistache that are still behind schedule.
Maidenhair tree (gingko) is the best for bright yellow, but lacks any other color. Fruitless mulberry, tulip tree and various poplars can be nearly as bright yellow in a good season, and may still color well. Of the various willows, only a few color well, and they tend to be more sensitive to weather. Early rain can rot their leaves before they get much color at all.
Although elms are not known for coloring, some of the modern varieties turn remarkably bright orange. However, the few oaks that color well in colder climates turn only dingy brown locally. The few North American maples that can provide color do not hold their colored foliage very long. All sorts of trees have all sorts of personalities.
Eastern redbud, smoke tree and crape myrtle are shrubs or small trees that color as well as larger trees in autumn. Crape myrtle can be as bright yellow, orange and red as sweetgum. Some Japanese maples color better than others, and some can be quite impressive, but only if their foliage does not get roasted by warm and arid weather through summer.
Where it can be accommodated, Boston ivy is an aggressively clinging vine that provides all the remarkably colorful foliage on freeway sound-walls. It is out on the freeways for a reason though. It can ruin any other surface that it clings to.
highlight: weeping white spruce
As the colorful deciduous trees go bare, the evergreen trees get more attention. A weeping white spruce, Picea glauca ‘Pendula’, really stands out. It grows slowly to only about fifteen feet tall and maybe five feet wide, so does not need as much space as a typical spruce tree. What makes it so distinctive is the weirdly pendulous stems that hang limply from a strictly vertical trunk. It is hard to believe that it is only a different variety of the same species as the dwarf Alberta spruce, which is very short, dense and symmetrically conical, with stout little stems. The foliage of weeping white spruce is lighter green than that of most other spruces, but is not as blue as that of blue spruce. The short and stiff needles are rather prickly to handle.
The narrow and weirdly sculptural form of the weeping white spruce is no good as a shade tree, but is an excellent trophy tree for a prominent spot. Full sun is best. A bit of shade can cause the main trunk to lean toward sunlight. Young trees should only be staked if they need it, since they can become dependent on stakes. The lowest limbs can be allowed to creep over the ground.
By Tony Tomeo