Top 10 hardy plants for autumn

Tree with bright red foliage

The oval-shaped leaves of the Winged Spindle Tree turn spectacular shades of red in autumn
Image: Euonymus alatus from Thompson & Morgan

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: 

  1. Parthenocissus
  2. Callicarpa
  3. Cercidiphyllum japonicum
  4. Crab apple
  5. Euonymus
  6. Pyracantha
  7. Chrysanthemum
  8. Aronia x prunifolia
  9. Viburnum opulus
  10. Liquidambar styraciflua

1. Parthenocissus

Red leaves of Virginia creeper

This vigorous, quick-growing climber covers walls and fences with fabulous autumn colour
Image: Parthenocissus quinquefolia from Thompson & Morgan

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.

2. Callicarpa

Purple berries on tree

The rosy-red autumn foliage of Beauty Berry is followed by striking purple berries
Image: Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' from Thompson & Morgan

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.

3. Cercidiphyllum japonicum

Yellow leave tree against blue skies

This superb multi-stemmed specimen tree provides flowers, colour-changing foliage and scent
Image: Cercidiphyllum japonicum from Thompson & Morgan

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.

4. Crab Apple

Red crab apple on tree

'John Downie' is an attractive variety that is popular for jelly making
Image: Crab Apple 'John Downie' from Thompson & Morgan

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.

5. Euonymus

Red euonymous leaves

The bright red leaves of this winged spindle are perfect for cottage or low-maintenance gardens
Image: Euonymus alatus from Thompson & Morgan

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.

6. Pyracantha

Yellow pyracantha berries

The bright yellow berries of this firethorn provide valuable winter food for birds
Image: Pyracantha 'Golden Charmer' from Thompson & Morgan

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.

7. Chrysanthemum

Colourful chrysanthemum flowers

These bright chrysanthemums provide colour long into autumn
Image: Chrysanthemum 'Decorative Mixed' from Thompson & Morgan

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.

8. Aronia x prunifolia

Red berries with red leaves

This low-maintenance and easy to grow shrub is prized for its autumn colour
Image: Aronia x prunifolia 'Brilliant' from Thompson & Morgan

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.

9. Viburnum opulus

Red berries of viburnum opulus with green foliage

The vibrant green, maple-like foliage of Viburnum opulus turns purple and red in autumn
Image: Viburnum opulus from Thompson & Morgan

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.

10. Liquidambar styraciflua

Red leaves of Sweet Gum tree

Liquidambar styraciflua makes a superb specimen for larger gardens
Image: Liquidambar styraciflua from Thompson & Morgan

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.

If you're looking for more ways to add colour as the temperature drops, see our favourite top 10 winter bedding plants or browse our full collection of shrubs with winter berries.

Sue Sanderson T&M horticulturalist

Written by: Sue Sanderson

Plants and gardens have always been a big part of my life. I can remember helping my Dad to prick out seedlings, even before I could see over the top of the potting bench. As an adult, I trained at Writtle College where I received my degree, BSc. (Hons) Horticulture. After working in a specialist plantsman's nursery, and later, as a consulting arboriculturalist, I joined Thompson & Morgan in 2008. Initially looking after the grounds and coordinating the plant trials, I now support the web team offering horticultural advice online.

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