Flames of Scarlet and Gold

Flames of Scarlet and Gold

Frequently seen on magazine covers and calendars in fall, Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) is the quintessential tree of autumn with its brilliant scarlet, tangerine, and topaz foliage.  It’s the first shade tree to color, starting as early as late September,  continuing through the end of October.  A majestic tree, it grows 60-75’ tall in the landscape. (This is the largest one I’ve ever seen. It’s in a front yard in Geneva, Illinois.)

In nature Sugar Maple it is found on east and north-facing slopes and undisturbed closed-canopy woodlands.  In the Chicago region, it’s more common east of Lake Michigan in the mesic forests of Indiana and Michigan.

Sugar Maple  is not suited for new subdivisions or street tree plantings, says Possibility Place Nursery Catalog.    Sugar Maple doesn’t like restricted growing areas in compacted dry soil with full sun all day–typical of parkways and newer subdivisions. In addition, it is subject to salt damage.

It has, unfortunately, invaded our oak savannas, threatening oak tree survival.  In unburned oak savannas, maple tree seedlings, which thrive in shade, out-compete oak seedlings that require more sun.



The foliage of Black Haw (Viburnum prunifolium) also turns to flame as early as the last week in September.  An elegant native small tree or large shrub, it grows 15’ high and 8-12’ wide.  It has interest in all 4 seasons: white blossoms in spring, rose berries  that turn to black in September, and gorgeous scarlet to burgundy foliage in the fall, rivaling any Burning Bush.  Its horizontal branching pattern is notable, giving it the look of a hawthorn: hence the common name.  And as a bonus, it reproduces itself by underground stoloniferous rhizomes and becomes a  thicket.  Or one can transplant the new plants to other places in  ones own garden or dig them to share with others.  In nature, it is found in moist Sugar Maple woods, or conversely, in upland savannas and woodland edges; in the home landscape, it adapts to full or part sun.  Plant it in the border,  along a fenceline,  or within a woodland.  It also makes a stunning specimen or focal point.  It is readily available from nurseries.


Close-up of a Black Haw–the short twigs give the appearance of hawthorn  thorns.

Grow-low Sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Grow-Low’) has turned to flame this week also.  It’s shown here with native Creeping Juniper cultivar ‘Prince of Wales’ (Juniperus horizontalis ‘Prince of Wales’) and Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepsis), all great groundcovers.

Close-up of the foliage.

Redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) never have a bad moment.  These fallen leaves on my patio are too pretty to rake up.

Some peop;e think seedpods are messy, but I think they add character and interest to a tree or shrub.

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7 Responses to Flames of Scarlet and Gold

  1. m whitman October 21, 2012 at 2:52 pm #

    What beautiful and comfortable gardens you make Pat.

  2. chris darbo October 22, 2012 at 8:51 am #

    This is the most beautiful time! Our natives have their shining moments, nay, shining weeks! Thanks for sharing your great photos! (heterolepis is the correct spelling, not …sis)

    • PatHill October 22, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

      You’re right, Chris. I’ve been mis-pronouncing and mis-spelling that for 15 years! You’re the first one to have caught it. Thank you.


  3. Yvonne Nillissen October 22, 2012 at 8:58 am #

    Native creeping juniper? Is there such a thing? Very interesting. would love to know more about it. I did not think there were any native evergreens besides eastern white pine.

    • PatHill October 22, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

      Juniperous horizontalis is native to Lake County, Illinois, on the low dunes next to Lake Michigan, say Swink & Wilhelm. There is a var. douglasii with the common name ‘Waukegan’ Juniper, which is still available at some nurseries. So, yes, I am stretching it by planting it in Kane County no where near a sand dune. Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is native to the entire Chicago region.

  4. Mike Rohrbeck October 22, 2012 at 12:09 pm #

    What a relief to get this kind of e-mail… eye candy for the season.

  5. Mary Alice Masonick October 22, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    It truly is a pleasure to admire Nature, during this and every season! Thanks, Pat.

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