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Spectacular shrubs can dazzle with fall color

When it comes to fall color, it’s not only trees that put on a dazzling show. Select the right shrubs and you can have a display of autumn colors closer to ground level. Here are a few of my favorites:

Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus compacta)
It is sometimes called Cork Tree or Dwarf Winged Euonymus, but nothing can better describe this shrub than the name Burning Bush! In the fall, the foliage turns to such a brilliant – almost luminous – red that it almost seems too perfect to be real. But real it is, of course.

If left untrimmed, it can reach a height of about 6 to 10 feet and produces orange/red berries that provide food for wildlife through the winter. A row of Burning Bushes in front of your house, particularly if backed by a white or light-colored wall, will create a colorful welcome to visitors in the fall. Although Burning Bush is somewhat shade-tolerant, you’ll see the brightest color if the shrubs are planted in full sun.

Fothergilla (Fothergilla Hamamelidaceae)
Like many plants, this one has an interesting history. It is named after Dr. John Fothergill (1735 – 1780), a physician and botanist, who championed the cause of the American colonists and became a friend of Benjamin Franklin.

Fothergilla is a dense, compact shrub producing fragrant, feathery, white flowers in the spring that remind me of bottle brushes. The rounded, dark-green leaves turn to a delightful orange-red and even scarlet. Fothergilla are tolerant of most soils, but do best in acid, moist, well-drained soil.

Clethra Ruby Spice (Clethra alnifolia Ruby Spice
The first time I saw this plant (or to be more accurate, a whole section of them) growing at a friend’s nursery, I was immediately struck by the cinnamon-like fragrance that was apparent from at least 50 feet away! It was July and the clusters of pink flowers were in full bloom.

Later, in the fall, the foliage becomes a very pleasant shade of yellow and then golden-brown. Ruby Spice is a good choice for shrub borders or around water features. I don’t recommend planting in drought-prone areas, but on the other hand, it is fairly adaptable to semi-waterlogged clay soils.

Little Henry (Itea virginica)
Little Henry could be a good choice when you’re looking for an attractive perennial shrub that maintains a compact size. Topping out between 1 and 3 feet at maturity, Little Henry is a semi-evergreen with dark green leaves that turn to a reddish tint in early fall and then go all the way to remarkable shades of dark crimson and scarlet as the temperatures drop. As I have said before, Little Henry is the one plant that can truly rival Burning Bush when it comes to eye-popping fall color.

I’ve found Little Henry to be quite easy to grow and it seems relatively free of problems associated with disease and insects. It’s an adaptable little fellow, tolerant of damp or dry soils, variances in pH and tolerant of light conditions from shade to full sun. I’d say Little Henry would be a good choice to cover a bank or a hillside that’s not easy to mow. It looks good around a pond or lake, too.

Shenandoah grass (Panicum virgatum)
This elegant ornamental grass is sometimes mistaken for Japanese Blood grass, but is just different enough to give your landscape a unique edge. Shenandoah has a cascading form with foliage that starts out green with the tips beginning to turn red by about mid-July. By the fall, the entire plant will have turned to a mixture of orange and red, for a spectacular display.

Shenandoah is a fairly fast-growing grass that can reach a height of around 4 to 5 feet. Plant it where it can get the benefit of full sun in order to achieve the full benefit of the spectacular color.

The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to steve@landsteward.org and for resources and additional information, including archived columns, visit www.landsteward.org