Autumn is a magical season when the spotlight falls on the hardy trees and shrubs that bring a riot of colour to fading borders. Choosing plants with vibrant foliage, berries, hips and seedheads can really ignite your planting schemes. Position them carefully to maximise their impact - autumn leaves backlit by the sun create a breathtaking display.
We asked our expert horticultural team to share their top ten favourites, and here are the autumn colour trees, shrubs and flowers they chose:
Parthenocissus is a superb climber for autumn colour; but it's not for the faint hearted - this vigorous grower will scale a large wall in no time! P. quinquefolia (Virginia Creeper) and P. tricuspidata (Boston Ivy) are the most widely grown. Their green leaves colour to crimson making a dramatic and showy wall covering. Few climbers offer such vibrant colour, particularly when grown in shade. Parthenocissus is the exception to the rule, positively thriving in those cold north and east-facing positions.
The distinctive berries of Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' make this hardy shrub instantly recognisable. Clusters of bright purple, glossy, bead-like fruits appear among the red-tinted, autumn foliage, and remain on the bare stems long after the leaves have fallen. Callicarpa makes a showy autumn shrub. The stems are prized for bringing colour and interest to autumn flower arrangements.
The rounded foliage of Cercidiphyllum japonicum makes an attractive display throughout the year, reaching its peak in autumn when it turns to orange-red and gold. This fast-growing tree makes a superb specimen if you have the space. Commonly known as the Katsura tree, even the fallen leaves produce an irresistibly sweet, candy-floss fragrance that wafts through your garden and delights the senses! The colours are at their best when it’s grown on an acid soil.
Crab apple trees are a sight to behold in late autumn! These majestic trees have superb autumn foliage but are best loved for their colourful fruits that crowd the branches well into winter, providing valuable food for birds. Try Malus 'Indian Magic' for a spectacular display of apricot-yellow fruits. If space is at a premium then M. 'John Downie' is a well-known, compact variety that makes superb crab apple jelly. For especially small gardens, M. 'Red Obelisk' is particularly useful, with a slender conical habit. With so many shapes and sizes to choose from, there’s a crab apple to suit almost every garden.
Many of the deciduous Euonymus species have superb autumnal foliage. Euonymus alatus is certainly one of the most reliable, turning a fabulous coppery pink colour. As the leaves fall they reveal the corky stems that make an intriguing feature themselves. For smaller gardens or containers, the compact Euonymus alatus 'Little Moses' grows to just 90cm tall. Don't overlook the cultivars of our native Spindle tree - E. europaeus 'Red Cascade' has superb scarlet colouring, and bears a profusion of pink and orange winged fruits.
A stalwart of gardens up and down the UK, pyracantha remains one of my favourites. This hardy shrub is tough, resilient and undemanding making it very easy to grow. At its best when trained as a wall shrub, it produces an abundance of berries in autumn that almost smother the evergreen foliage. The bright berries of P. 'Golden Charmer' stand out particularly nicely. If you’re planting pyracantha as a security hedge then P. 'Red Column' makes a good choice for its dense and very prickly stems.
Autumn isn’t too late for a burst of colourful flowers. Chrysanthemums are the ultimate late-flowering perennials, bringing a refreshing rainbow of blooms to fading borders and containers. I'm particularly fond of Chrysanthemum 'Hardy Patio Mixed' which forms a neat, rounded cushion of flowers that looks amazing in containers! These hardy perennials are the perfect way to add a bright accent to your seasonal garden.
Commonly known as Chokeberry, this hardy shrub deserves a stronger presence in UK gardens. With fragrant spring blooms and glossy winter berries, it has a long season of interest. But it’s best known for its glorious autumn leaf colours - red, orange and yellow tones meld together in a fiery display that will certainly draw attention. Aronia x prunifolia 'Brilliant' and A. x prunifolia 'Autumn Magic' both live up to their names, providing an unforgettable display.
Best known by its common name of Guelder Rose, this hardy deciduous shrub makes a great choice for bringing autumn interest to wildlife areas. The shiny red berries are a magnet for birds, providing a rich food source. The maple-like foliage turns to brilliant hues of pink, purple and red in a spectacular display. This reliable shrub makes an excellent hedging plant, but is equally good as a stand-alone specimen, tolerating most conditions without issue.
Breathtaking autumn foliage that rivals any Maple in autumn! The palmate leaves of Liquidambar styraciflua turn to vibrant shades of purple, scarlet, orange and gold and glow like a beacon in the waning autumn sunlight. This hardy deciduous tree makes a magnificent specimen plant for larger gardens, producing some of the best and longest lasting autumn displays you'll see.