Fall in the Pacific Northwest: A Kaleidoscope of Color

September 8, 2013

While I love summer in Seattle, I really do, I have a confession to make, fall has always been my favorite season – ever since I was a child.  Yes, I love the fuzzy sweaters and the opportunity to pull out my (too) many scarves from the closet, but it’s the colors of fall that truly make the season special.  There are times when I just can’t believe nature produces the colors it does.  If you’re interested in fall color, you’re living in the right place.  We have so many choices of plant material, from trees to groundcovers, it’s sometimes overwhelming.

Following is a list of some of our favorites.  Because there are so many great choices, I broke the list into trees, shrubs, grasses and vines, groundcovers and bulbs.  Can you tell I like fall plants?


Full moon maple, Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’

This graceful multi-trunked tree grows to approximately 8 -10 ft tall and wide.  It prefers to be in full sun to part shade.  It’s most notable characteristic is it’s palmate, almost fern-like, deeply dissected leaves.  The leaves are a medium shade of green through spring and summer and morph into numerous shades of orange and red in fall.  A true beauty that makes a lovely specimen tree.

Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium' Image by Jean-Pol Grandmant

Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’
Image – Jean-Pol Grandmant

Japanese stewartia, Stewartia pseudocamelia

Japanese stewartia is a columnar tree that can grow to 25 ft tall and 12 ft wide.  It prefers full sun to part shade conditions.  Lovely camelia-like flowers appear June through July, but it’s the gorgeous orange and yellow tones it takes on in fall that steal the show.

Stewartia pseudocamelia Image - BHG

Stewartia pseudocamelia
Image – BHG


Katsura, Cercidiphyllum japonicum

Katuras can grow to be 60 ft tall and 50ft wide and prefer full sun to light or open shade.  It’s leaves emerge in spring with a reddish purple tint and mature to a blue-ish green through summer.  In fall they take on bright yellow tones with a hint of orange.  It’s a graceful tree who’s leaves resemble pearls hanging from a chain.  Another great specimen tree.

Cercidiphyllum japonicum Image - Steve Whysall

Cercidiphyllum japonicum
Image – Steve Whysall

Korean dogwood, Cornus kousa

Depending on the cultivar, Korean dogwoods can grow to be 30ft tall and 25ft wide.  They prefer full sun to light or open shade conditions.  In June large flowers, actually bracts, emerge in shades varying from white, as in ‘Milky Way’ to the dark pink of ‘Miss Satomi’.  In late summer bright red fruit hangs from the tree.  In fall the leaves turn a deep red to scarlet shade – stopping passers-by in their tracks.

Cornus kousa Image - Ed Gregon

Cornus kousa
Image – Ed Gregon



Mountain witch alder, Fothergilla major

Mountain witch alder grows to approximately 6 ft tall and wide.  It’s a multi-stemmed shrub that takes on a mounded shape.  It’s leaves are a bluish-green shade through summer and take on a kaleidoscope of greens, yellows, oranges and reds in fall.  If you want fall color, this it, a true stunner.

Fothergilla major Image - BHG

Fothergilla major
Image – BHG

Dwarf winged burning bush, Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’

Dwarf winged burning bush is a large rounded shrub that can grow to be 10 ft wide and tall.  It likes full sun to part shade conditions.  Leaves emerge a bright green in spring and morph into a flaming red color in fall.  They call it burning bush for a reason!  It works well in mass, as a shrub border or as screen.

Euonymus alatus 'Compactus'

Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’

Oakleaf hydrangea,  Hydrangrea quercifolia

Oakleaf hydrangea is a multi-season plant.  It bares white to pale pink blooms May through July.  Its leaves are various shades of green with hints of purple through summer and mature to a deep shades of burgundy and red in fall.  While it does drop some of its leaves in winter, it holds on to many.  It can grow to be 10′ tall and wide and prefers full sun to part shade.

Hydrangea quericifolia Image - MBG

Hydrangea quericifolia
Image – MBG

Doublefile viburnum, Viburnum plicatum tomentosum

Doublefile viburnun is a moderate growing shrub that can reach 8 ft tall and 10 feet wide.  One of its most outstanding features is its multi-tiered growth habit.  In spring paired white blooms appear to float atop the branches.  Leaves are a medium green through summer and change to shades of red and burgundy in fall.  It likes full sun to part shade conditions.

Viburnum plicatum tomentosum Image - Midwestliving.com

Viburnum plicatum tomentosum
Image – Midwestliving.com


Variegated purple moor grass, Molinia caerulea ssp. ‘Variegata’

Variegated purple moor grass is a clumping grass that grows in 1 foot tufts.  In late summer flowers and seed heads grow 3 feet above the tufts and create a light airy feel.  It’s these seed heads that make for a beautiful fall effect.  They are especially gorgeous when the light catches them and produces a golden glow.  Plant this grass in full sun.

Molinia caerulea ssp. 'Variegata' Image - GPP

Molinia caerulea ssp. ‘Variegata’
Image – GPP

Feather reed grass, Calamagrotis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’

Feather reed grass adds structure to a garden while maintaining some airiness and movement.  It grows in clumps that stand approximately 2 feet tall but it’s the flower stalks that emerge in June and grow to 6 ft tall that make this grass so unique.  These inflorescence mature to a golden color in late summer and persist through winter.  Again, consider planting this grass where the light can catch it, creating a golden glow.    


Calamagrotis x acutiflora 'Karl Foerster'

Calamagrotis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’

Switch grass, Panicum virgatum ‘ Shenandoah’

This switch grass emerges bluish-green in the spring and matures to burgundy by mid-summer.  Panicles turn beige as the seeds mature in fall with the seed plumes persisting well into winter.  This grass prefers full sun to part shade.

Panicum virgatum 'Shanandoah' Image - Marie Viljoen

Panicum virgatum ‘Shanandoah’
Image – Marie Viljoen

Vines, Groundcovers and Bulbs:

Purple-leaf grape vine, Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’

Purple-leaf grape vine is a variety of the common wine grape.  Foliage emerges green in spring with a hint of burgundy and matures to a deep red in fall.  Purple clusters of grapes hang from the vine in late summer.  Plant this vine in a sunny spot.

Vitis vinifera 'Purpurea' Image - VerVerde

Vitis vinifera ‘Purpurea’
Image – VerVerde

Autumn crocus, Colchicum autumnale

Just as other plants are losing their leaves in preparation for winter, the autumn crocus is just getting going!  Bright lavender-pink blooms emerge from the ground in September and persist for several weeks.  Colchicums are drought tolerant and will multiply into a full patch over time.

Colchicum autumnale Image - Jan Mehlich

Colchicum autumnale
Image – Jan Mehlich

Angelina stonecrop, Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’

Sedum Angelina is an evergreen ground cover that grows to approximately  6 inches tall and spreads to 2 feet wide.  For most of the year it’s spiky foliage is chartreuse in color until fall when it takes on yellow, copper and red tones.  It’s a favorite that does well in full sun situations.

Sedum rupestre 'Angelina'

Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’

There are so many amazing plants for fall color to choose from, that do well here in the Pacific Northwest.  We hope this list provides some inspiration.  Remember, fall is a great time for planting!

What are your favorite plants for fall color?  We’d love to hear from you!

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