Fall Color

Chris Beagan and I have been working with folks at the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site to create a planting plan for the Green Hill Parcel. The invasive plant remediation (i.e. weed killing) has started and we’re now choosing plants to replace the dead weeds.  It is important to fill the space left by these weeds, because leaving the soil bare can lead to a re-infestation. To avoid this, we are going to get new plants in the ground as soon as spring arrives. We have a list of woody plants that preserves the historic character of the parcel and later this month we are going to go out into the field and stake out areas where various plants should be installed.

To prepare for this fieldwork, I gathered information on the maximum height, spread, and sun requirements for all of the species we are considering planting. This information can be found in Michael A. Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses. Dirr’s manual is an authoritative guide for horticulturists and landscape designers. Along with information for species identification, cultural requirements, and cultivar lists, he often includes amusing bits of practical knowledge from his experiences in the field. For example, of Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata), Dirr says, “What could taste better than Hickory smoked hams and bacon? Try some hickory chips in your next barbecue outing (p. 187).” These moments of chatty, almost neighborly insight make it a very enjoyable manual to read.

As it is fall and I went to Mount Auburn Cemetery (a National Historic Landmark) last weekend to look at the changing foliage, I was especially interested in what Dirr had to say about fall coloring for the species we are considering for the Green Hill Parcel. I’ve picked out a few highlights to share as part of this blog post in case you want to identify and appreciate some of the plants in your neighborhood this fall:

European Beech (Fagus sylvatica)


Leaf Color: When unfolding a tender shimmering green unmatched by any other tree gradually changing to lustrous dark green in summer followed by rich russet and golden bronze in fall (p. 371).

Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)


Leaf Color: Leaves emerge folded in flag-like outline, mature to bright green in summer, changing to golden yellow or yellow in fall, often superb during October and into early November; I have never given the species sufficient credit for fall coloration; truly an aristocratic tree (p. 573).

Red Oak (Quercus rubra)




Leaf Color: Pinkish to reddish when unfolding, lustrous dark green in summer changing to russet-red to bright red in fall; sometimes disappointing and never passing much beyond yellow-brown (p. 836).

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)


Leaf Color: Usually a medium to dark green in summer… changing to brilliant yellow, burnt orange and limited red tones in autumn; there is great variation of fall color among members of this species; the New England types seem to show more orange and red than the southern… (p. 53).

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)


Leaf Color: A handsome bronze-green to yellow-green when unfolding, usually a good dark green in summer, fall color is a consistent red to reddish purple; one of the most consistent trees for excellent fall color… one of the first trees to fall color especially when stressed; fall color is usually long persistent (p. 254).

 Until next week,




Drawing and Quotation Source: Michael A. Dirr, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation and Uses, 5th Edition (Champaign: Stipes Publishing, 1998).

One response to “Fall Color

  1. Pingback: Rhododendrons and Hillsides | Designing the Parks·

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