The Colours of Autumn
I’m a little fascinated by the annual fanfare about the fall season. Think about it. Upon the first snowfall of winter, everyone is atwitter about the holidays. In spring, it’s the relief of being done with winter. By summertime, everyone is heralding the arrival of patio season and beach weather. Yet, the arrival of fall seems to get the loudest celebration of all four. Even in early September, far too early for planning Thanksgiving meals or Halloween costumes. What’s the deal?
When you think about it, it’s all about the colours. As soon as fall hits, the stores brim with clothing in tones that match the trees. Everything is red, gold, or pumpkin-spiced. Despite the end of the year’s hottest season, fall is when everyone becomes collectively obsessed with warmth.
As it turns out, there’s an evolutionary reason for this. The colours of fall are closely tied to objects in nature that ignite excitement in humans. The warm tones of the tree canopies remind us of fire—the ultimate game-changer of human history. Those deep reds and purples remind instinctively us of sweet, overripe fruits. In essence, we’re collectively responding as if the world were a big bonfire and someone brought snacks.
The reasons the colours of fall bring us so much happiness is embedded in our genetic code. So, why not embed them into your fall landscape? Here are some of my favourite plants for adding classic fall colours to the garden.
A Pop of Yellow
These perennials bring a little bit of sunshine into your garden, even when it’s overcast.
Goldsturm Coneflower – A classic black-eyed Susan variety with gold-toned petals and chocolate-brown centers. They prefer evenly moist, but still well-drained soil, and a spot with full sun exposure.
Sunny Seduction Yarrow – This cultivar of a native perennial is a late-summer to early-fall bloomer. The flowers start out in a peppy shade of banana yellow and mature to a paler, buttery colour. Thanks to its native parent plant, this yarrow is well-known to pollinators like birds, butterflies, and bees and needs very little upkeep.
Little Lemon Goldenrod – This butterfly magnet has plumes of zesty lemon-toned blooms that sit on top of tall stems with spiky foliage. The texture and brightness of this goldenrod add a visual thrill to garden beds. They thrive best in full sun, and need a little pampering to look their best. They’ll need daily deadheading and a quick soil check to make sure they’re being kept consistently moist.
Orange You Glad…
…I included orange plants? If you missed the boat on starting up a pumpkin patch this summer, you can still add that golden glow to your garden with these stunners.
Teton Scarlet Firethorn – I love any plant that does a full costume change between seasons. These guys are loaded with pretty white flowers in the springtime, but by the fall, their branches are swimming in incredible orange berries. The leaves also fade from their warm-season green to a spectacular shade of bronze in the fall. As their name would suggest, they do have thorns, so make sure kids and pets leave this one alone. They prefer full sun, and can thrive in any soil type.
Columnar Sugar Maple – These unexpected maples remind me of firecrackers thanks to their long, cylindrical habit and autumn uniform of blazing orange. They prefer moist soil and a sunny spot to bask in.
Tiger Eyes Sumac – With fall foliage that would make your jaw drop, this shrub is a heartbreaker. In the fall, the leaves transform from yellow to fiery coral with a top-to-bottom colour gradient. Combined with the elegant drape of the branches and the fine foliage shaped like the pupils of a tiger, this one is really worth fitting into your landscape. These shrubs can be trained into a tree form, and while spread as wide as they are tall. They’ll tolerate full sun to part shade but they need plenty of room to grow.
We call these vibrant crimson plants over.
Chrysanthemums – While not specifically a red plant, they are a fall staple and the red varieties are irresistible. There are florist varieties for your containers and garden mums for your garden beds, but why choose just one? I love the look of multiple mum cultivars together, all in a range of red shades. Mums will stick around until the frost as long as they get a regular drink of water.
Tamukeyama Japanese Maple – Japanese maples are pretty famous for their fall display, and Tamukeyama is no exception. Its finely-textured foliage matures from green to deep burgundy and ultimately into blazing tones of red and orange. Give them the occasional deep watering and they’ll last for decades.
Virginia Creeper – This hardy vine has attractive five-lobed leaves that quickly spread over fences, the sides of your house, and any other structure they can climb. While they look pretty romantic in the summer, they’re absolutely stunning in the fall as the leaves turn deep red and their fruit matures to a dark blue. These low-maintenance beauties are beloved by birds and don’t need any special care or considerations beyond managing their spread.
If red is the king of fall colour, purple is the prince.
Sunset Cloud Stonecrop – This sedum’s summer foliage has an ethereal, sage-y colour, but in the fall it goes full-on vamp mode. It takes on a deep, dark purple colour that any proper goth would love to have as a lipstick shade. Contrasting with its violet veneer are clusters of rose-toned blossoms. You’d have to try harder to kill this plant than to keep it alive—just keep it planted in full sun.
Black Knight Butterfly Bush – The panicles of rich purple flowers on this shrub attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds from miles away. In addition to being adored by gardeners and pollinators alike, it’s also extremely tough. It thrives in any soil, and only needs good sun exposure to work its magic. This dark knight may in fact be more resilient than Batman. (My son disagrees.)
Now, go forth and surround yourself with those feel-good fall tones! This bonfire of colour will only stick around for a few more weeks, so soak in that warmth while you can.