A Blaze Of Autumn Colour

Autumn is a time of glorious colour in the garden with fiery shades of foliage that seem to glint in the sunlight.  As the season changes the chlorophyll that gives leaves their green colour begins to break down turning the foliage to magnificent shades of orange, yellow red or purple.  It’s not just trees that can provide spectacular autumn colours - some shrubs are still flowering at this time of the year and fruiting shrubs produce berries which the birds love.  Perennials such as heucheras are at their best at this time of the year with their vivid  colours and the delicate feathery seed-heads of perennial grasses  look dramatic covered in early morning dew, especially when spiders have been busy weaving their webs.  

With some carefully selected plants you can create seasonal interest in the garden.  Our favourite autumn trees, shrubs and perennials are listed below and now is an ideal time to plant these while the soil is still warm. 

Trees for autumn leaf colour: 

Sorbus Autumn Spire  

This deciduous tree has bright green pinnate foliage with with pretty white flowers that appear in the summer, followed by striking autumn foliage that contrast beautifully with its bright yellow berries that the birds love to feast on.  The distinctive, compact, columnar habit of this tree make Autumn Spire ideal as a specimen in a small garden of any type including city, courtyard, cottage, informal or wildlife gardens.  Requires moderately fertile, humus-rich soil and should be planted in full sun or partial shade.  Height and spread: 4m x 2m after ten years.

Gleditsia triacanthos 'Sunburst' (Honey Locust)   

A delicate fern-like small tree with golden yellow leaves and a rounded crown.  ‘Sunburst’ is perfect to grow as a specimen tree.  Position in full sun in any well drained soil.  Height and spread: 5m x 3m after ten years.  

Liquidambar styraciflua (Sweet Gum)      

Liquidamber are probably one of the most spectacular of deciduous trees for autumn colour.  Their maple like leaves gradually turn glorious vibrant shades of red and orange tinged with yellow.  In springtime the leaves open to a vivid green.  Liquidamber are native to the swampy regions of South America and were given their botanical name by the Spanish herbalist Francisco Hernandez who discovered them due to their aromatic gum. Position in full sun or partial shade in moist well drained soil.  (Full sun will bring out the best autumn colours.)  These wonderfully architectural trees are low maintenance and are suitable for many garden styles.  Height and spread: up to 12m x wider than 8m after fifty years plus.  

Cryptomeria japonica Elegans Compacta (Japanese Cedar)   

This slow growing bushy, evergreen conifer is a rounded specimen with beautifully textured soft foliage that turns purple in winter.  Reaches a height of 2m and spread 2.5m in ten years.  Plant in full sun in moist, well drained soil in a sheltered position. 

Shrubs for autumn interest: 

Cornus Alba Baton Rouge ‘Minibat’  

This deciduous shrub has green leaves that turn a beautiful shade of dark red in autumn.  These shrubs look magnificent in the winter with their bright red stems that stand out on frosty or snowy mornings.  Height and spread:  1.8m x 1.8m. 

RHS Plants for Pollinators

Cornus sericea ‘Hedgerows Gold’    

A striking plant with green leaves margined bright yellow and gorgeous red stems in winter.  Position in full sun or partial shade in any fertile soil.  Height and spread:  2.5m x 4m in five to ten years. 

RHS Award Of Garden Merit

Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ (Smoke Bush)    

Cotinus are grown for their vibrant spring foliage and rich autumn leaf  colour.  ‘Royal Purple’ has eye-catching deep purple leaves that become redder in the autumn and produces large feathery pink inflorscences (clusters of small flowers) in the summer.  Although Cotinus can grow quite large they can also be pruned annually to keep them to a manageable size.  Grow in fertile, well drained soil in full sun or partial shade.  Height and spread:  4 - 8m x 4 - 8m in ten to twenty years.

RHS Award Of Gardem Merit.

Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’   

Grown for its leaf colour, Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’ has evergreen foliage mottled with pink and cream on slender arching branches. Racemes of white flowers appear during the spring.  This slow growing shrub reaches a height of 0.8m x 1m spread in ten years.  Grow in full sun or partial shade in moist well drained soil.  


Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ (Redbud)      

‘Forest Pansy’ is grown mainly for its striking foliage effects.  The large heart-shaped deep red-purple leaves turn the most wonderful shades of orange, bronze and red-purple in autumn.  Small bright pink clusters of flowers appear on bare stems before the leaves arrive.  Can be grown as a shrub or a small multi-stemmed tree.  Position in full sun or partial shade in fertile, moisture retentive well drained soil.  Height and spread:  4 - 8m x 4 - 8m in 101 - 20 years.

'RHS Award Of Garden Merit. 

Autumn perennials: 

Cortaderia Pumila (Pampas Grass)    

This fabulous, evergreen ornamental grass has tufted dark green leaves and dense silvery or pink-tinged flower panicles in late summer to mid winter.  This showy perennial requires very little care and is perfect for growing in flower borders and beds.  Plant in full sun in moist, well drained soil.  Height and spread: 1.2m x 0.8m. 

RHS Award Of Garden Merit. 

Heuchera Indian Summer ‘Boysenberry’ 

This eye-catching variety from the Indian Summer Series has a long succession of white flowers on wiry stems over neat mounds of mahogany-pink ruffled leaves.  Position in beds, borders or containers in sun or part shade in moist well drained soil.  Height and spread: 60cm x 40cm. 

Heuchera ‘Plum Pudding’ 

A delightful evergreen perennial with silver and burgundy tinted foliage.  Coral coloured flowers appear in summer.  This Heuchera prefers a shady position and moist soil.  Height and spread: 40cm x 40cm.  

The RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) helps gardeners choose the best plants for their garden.

RHS Plants for Pollinators plants; these plants will provide nectar and pollen for bees and the many other types of pollinating insects.