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Sourwood’s Stunning Fall Color

One of the most spectacular shows occurs throughout Kentucky every October, written and produced by Mother Nature. It lasts for only a few short weeks, but everyone gets to see it. You can drive throughout Kentucky and enjoy it on a large scale, but for many of us we just step outside our back door: the dramatic colors of fall are everywhere.

No matter what time of the year I describe or whenever I recommend a plant to someone, fall color always seems to come up. Part of any good design is making sure that all seasons of the year are beautiful in the garden. As a rule, I always choose and place a few plants in the landscape simply for fall color show.

The traditional colors of fall are red, orange, gold, and yellow—bright eye-catching colors signaling the onset of winter. Sweeping across a wooden range or hillside, these colors seem blended in perfect proportions. In our smaller gardens, we have to be a little more careful and stage our fall color so it won’t become overwhelming. Fortunately, not all plants change color at the same time, and in a diverse urban landscape it seems that we have a slightly longer fall color season as each plant changes on its own schedule.

It is amazing to see a plant like a beautiful sourwood in full fall color, with a big tree behind it still as green as spring. Many plants you may have discovered turn color early and hold their color late, some don’t show a hint of change (like ornamental pears) until well into October, and then there are a few like many of our native nut trees that drop all their leaves without even a hint of color.

Lily of the valley tree
Our native sourwood, Oxydendrum arboretum, is favored for its brilliant red fall color, but this isn’t the only characteristic it has going for it. Also called the lily of the valley tree, sourwood has beautiful white flowers that emerge in June and early July. They seem to droop off the tips of the branches like flowing water, giving it an unusual character. Bees love the flowers, and throughout Tennessee and North Georgia in the early fall you will find sourwood honey. After flowering, you will see the seed pods persist into fall and winter, making it easy to identify a sourwood even when no leaves are present.

Sourwood grows prolifically in its native range where the soils are acid, rocky, and many times shallow. You are more likely to see it growing natively throughout western Kentucky and south into Georgia. It still makes a great specimen when planted in the garden in our area and outside its native range.

Sourwood size
The range in size of sourwood is mind-boggling. As a landscape specimen, it would be unusual to see one growing more than 20 to 30 feet tall. But when found growing natively, in some areas it can be seen growing more than 75 feet in height. This tree tends to have a more natural or irregular shape, but typically always has a nice straight trunk. The irregularity in shape comes from its branching habit, giving it a slightly layered and cascading appearance.

I have long been in love with sourwood, its beautiful sweet flowers, simple beauty, individual character, and stunning fall character. It would be great to see it more in the urban garden, but it can still be a little hard to find. When you do locate them, they are usually small plants grown in containers 3 to 15 gallons. This smaller container-grown plant is said to transplant better and has a much higher success rate than larger specimens.

Fall color goal
If you need to add a little fall color to your garden, take a walk around your neighborhood this fall, visit a garden center, or visit a local cemetery, forest, or botanical garden. Notice all the different fall color on the plants. Make a list of those you love and use this as a wish list for potential additions or renovations to the garden.

Write a goal in capital letters in your gardening journal or just use a sticky note on the refrigerator or near your gardening tools that says, “I WILL CHOOSE A FEW PLANTS FOR THE GARDEN JUST BECAUSE THEY HAVE BEAUTIFUL FALL COLOR.” Then each time you head out to work in the garden, you will be reminded not to forget about the fall.

Written goals keep us on track. Don’t let spring fever dictate your garden design. Keep working hard to develop a garden that is as beautiful in the fall as it is the rest of the year.

Other natives for fall color

  • Pawpaw (small tree)
  • Viburnum ‘Winterthur’ (medium shrub)
  • Sassafras (medium tree)
  • Black gum ‘Red Rage’ (medium/large tree)
  • White ash (large tree)
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