Trees that turn red


Foliage of the black tupelo tree, Nyssa sylvatica. We live in the northernmost part of native range of this beautiful and stately tree.

The underlying color of foliage is yellow–leaves begin yellow and turn green when they begin to produce chlorophyll. So why do some trees go to the trouble of turning fiery red in fall?

There are several theories. Some woody plants, vines in particular, turn red to signal to birds that their berries are ripe (birds have excellent color vision). Virginia creeper and poison ivy, two native vines that are particularly beneficial to wildlife, turn fiery red in fall, usually while the trees around them are still green. Ecologists call this a foliar flag.


A foliar flag: poison ivy growing up a tree trunk turns red in early fall, while the tree that supports it is still green, to signal to birds that its berries are ripe.

But maples and tupelos both flaunt bright red foliage in fall, although their fruits ripen much earlier in the season. Why do the trees waste all the energy it takes to produce red pigment? There are many theories: to protect against insect damage or sunburn at the crucial time of leaf abscission,  or to fool insects into thinking the tree is dying; they’re neatly summarized in today’s NY Times. Read about it there, and be sure to get outside and enjoy the short-lived show. There are lots of lovely red and sugar maples around our area, and even a few tupelos.

I’ll leave you with a brain teaser: the foliage of which native shrub turns a deep purple/pink color in fall?


Native sugar maples are plentiful in our area; they turn beautiful shades or red and orange. Many dogwoods and viburnums turn dark red.



The garden right now


Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is displaying a lovely clear yellow color this year. This mid-sized tree is an excellent wildlife plant, like all cherries, but its tendency to form thickets makes it difficult to use in most gardens. You have to give it room to spread.


Many native perennials provide a second burst of garden interest in the form of vivid leaf color. The bright red is sundrops, Oenothera fruticosa.


From left to right: orange chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), yellow spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and dark red flowering dogwood (Cornus florida).


A detailed look at those chokeberry leaves.


Seeds of little bluestem (Schizachrium scoparium) turn a tranclucent silver in the autumn sunlight. After the birds eat them, the stalks will turn pink and remain through the winter.


Most perennials have gone to seed, but New England aster (Aster novae-angliae) will continue to bloom for a few more weeks.


Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) never fails to delight. Its autumn color is usually a brilliant orange red, but right now, the few remaining leaves are a deep russet.

These photos were all taken yesterday. Enjoy the bright colors on this dark, rainy day. And remember how badly we need the rain!