Fiery Foliage

…and the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame,

September Song


Fiery Foliage

 There are abundant trees, shrubs, and vines whose leaves “turn to flame” in autumn, reflecting the fire of the setting sun.  The earliest, beginning at the end of September, are Virginia Creeper, various species of sumac and serviceberry, and our favorite symbol of fall, Sugar Maple.

The earliest to color, Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), clambers along the ground and up and over shrubs until it finds something upon which to climb; then it skyrockets to the top of the highest tree. It flaunts its flaming foliage amongst the still green treetops beginning it late September, continuing through October.  














It produces bluish black berries at the end of bright red stalks, a favorite food of a host of birds



Photo taken late September near my back door.  When I bought my house in 1997, Virginia Creeper was the only plant on my property, originating in the far back corner of the lot.  It meanders around in shady areas, climbing where ever it finds a vertical surface.

Photos taken early October.


Sumac is among the earliest to color, as well, beginning the last week in September.  It holds its fiery leaves until the end of October, putting on a four-to five-week spectacle for us.

The dazzling scarlet foliage of Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) that grows in lavish abundance along woodland edges and roadsides never fails to stir us.  It used to grow in abundance along railroad tracks but the railroads’ use of herbicides has reduced the incidence of Sumac and the lavish displays of other native plants dramatically.

A rapid colonizer, Smooth Sumac was used frequently by DOT landscape architects to hold steep highway embankments next to underpasses. (I don’t see that much anymore.)

It was a favorite of Jens Jensen—he advocated planting Sugar Maple, Sumac, and Goldenrod along the east side of a property “to reflect the fire of the setting sun backed by the darkness of night.”

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) is similar in appearance and habit to the Smooth Sumac, but its new growth is covered with velvet—it does indeed resemble a stag’s antlers.  Indigenous east of Lake Michigan, it is found on rocky slopes, woodland edges, and lake shores.  I have not seen the species in commerce, but the cut-leaved cultivars are readily available.  Both ‘Laciniata’ and ‘Dissecta’ have beautiful, light green, fine-textured, fern-like foliage that turns to tangerine and vermilion in fall.  It colonizes vigorously, so plant it where it has room to spread.  It was a favorite of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Sandy Black Oak savannas and sandy fields east and south of Lake Michigan are home to Shining Sumac (Rhus copallina var. latifolia). An apt name, its shiny dark green foliage turns a dazzling crimson in fall.  It, too, works well for embankment stabilization. It seems to be available only in a cultivated form, a Chicagoland Grows selection, ‘Prairie Flame.’

Another colorful note is Dogbane or Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum or sibericum), with narrow, golden leaves that clasp 1-3’ erect, red stems.  It can rapidly colonize disturbed gravelly sites, such as along railroads, say Swink & Wilhelm. I used to see it frequently along railroads, also, a striking contrast to the scarlet Smooth Sumac.  It appears, however, to have been herbicided along with the Sumac.   Even though it species name is sibericum, it is native to the entire United States and southern Canada.  (The above just popped up in my west parkway garden within a Prairie Dropseed.  We’ll see what happens with it.)

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) also turns to flame in late September.  Gorgeous in a naturalized situation, it also is spectacular in a landscape.

Serviceberry is an excellent choice to place at a corner of a house–its horizontal branches tie it to the ground.  It does well in part shade, as in this picture…

…or in full sun at the southeast corner of this house.

It can serve as a focal point of a shrubbery border.

One of my very favorite photos, ever, taken at what used to be the main St. Charles Park District building.  Worth imitating somewhere in your yard.

There are 2 species of Amelanchier generally available in commerce: Amelanchier arborea, called Serviceberry, Juneberry, or Shadbush, and Amelanchier laevis, called Allegheny Shadblow. In addition, a naturally occurring hybrid, Amelanchier x grandiflora or Apple Serviceberry, has been cultivated since 1870 and is also found at garden centers, usually as a cultivar.  In nature, in the Midwest, Serviceberry is found most frequently in the high dunes near Lake Michigan.  It is also found in dry-mesic woods. This tells us that it doesn’t like wet soils.  If you do plant it at the corner of of building, be sure the downspout is directed away from the tree.

For more on Serviceberry, go to:

Next week:Sugar Maple and Viburnum.  Stay tuned.







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