Using native trees and shrubs for a colorful Fall palette

Published 3:40 pm Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cooler days are on the horizon whispering a promise of autumn leaves that will soon he putting on a show in Pearl River County. More pleasing temperatures just might entice you to spend more time in your garden and perhaps the following selections will inspire you to plant a new tree or shrub to give an extra dose of fall color in your landscape.

Which trees say Autumn to you? Here at the Crosby Arboretum we enjoy, among many others, the scarlet leaves of red maples, sweetgum, and Elliot’s Blueberry found throughout our exhibits.

The beautiful red maple grows to around 40 feet and it is one of the easiest trees to grow locally as it tolerates both very wet and very dry soils, and grows in full sun as well as the shady areas under  the canopy of larger trees.

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Sweetgum is also a large deciduous tree that can rapidly grow to over 100 feet tall. It has attractive star-shaped leaves and is known for its brilliant red fall color, as well as its spiny ball-shaped fruits that can be quite a surprise to those walking barefoot in the lawn. Properly sited, however, the merits of this tree can be enjoyed, as it can make a handsome shade tree, is tolerant of urban situations, and has the ability to grow on both moist and dry sites.

Some may know sweetgum as the “toothbrush tree” because of its use by pioneers who cut and chewed its twigs until the became soft enough for this use. Known for dropping limbs, care should be used when deciding where to locate this beautiful and interesting tree, keeping it away from the home, outdoor buildings, and vehicles.

In fall, black gum puts on a coat of many colors and is a common sight in the fall along our Pearl River County roadsides. They are typically found in swampy areas, but also occur on upland sites, and average 60 feet in height. Looking southward from the Arboretum bridge that passes over the slough on our Arrival Journey, the long branches of this tree can be seen descending toward the water. Growing in full sun or partial shade, black gum can be used in the home landscape as not only a shade tree, but an ornamental one. An added bonus is that when in bloom, the flowers are attractive to bees and are a source of “tupelo honey.”

Fringetree, pawpaw, and southern sugar maple are all small native trees that will light up the forest and your landscape with glowing yellow foliage in the fall months. Both Fringetree, which is also known as Grancy graybeard, and pawpaw prefer moist, well drained woodlands but are adaptable to a variety of soils and light exposures. Both are excellent choices for shady sites in your yard. You may also be surprised to learn that there is a southern sugar maple that adds color to your landscape. More heat tolerant than the northern sugar maple and found along stream banks of southern bottomland forests, the southern sugar maple prefers an alkaline soil.

In fall, the rusty orange tones of bald cypress adorn the Arboretum’s Aquatic Exhibit. This tree occurs naturally in wet habitats throughout the Coastal Plain and prefers acidic soils and full sun. Although it tolerates wet sites, the bald cypress will do well in upland environments and is actually drought-tolerant. Bald cypress provides a light, lacy shade in the garden with its feathery leaves and grows quite tall, to 😯 feet or more. Quite attractive when young, it is nice when planted in groupings at the edge of a pond or in an island bed.

Several native shrubs are notable for the jewel-tones they contribute to the autumn tapestry of the home garden. One is the Virginia sweetspire found growing along the banks of wet areas and streams through-out Southern Mississippi. Known for its beautiful white, slightly fragrant flowers in early spring, its durability and toughness, and its incredible fall color show of purplish burgundy leaves, the Virginia sweetspire is a great choice for landscaping. Tolerating flooding well and able to flourish in partial shade or full sun, the Virginia sweetspire is a favorite for the home landscape. Note though, that if planted where it can enjoy full sun, the foliage grows thicker for more autumn color and when spring rolls around, the plant grows many more flowers. This shrub can be seen at the Arboretum’s Cypress Cove deck where it has established itself on the slight rises of tree buttresses, such the Bald Cypress which provides the plant with good drainage. Sweetspire is established in the nursery trade with cultivars such as ‘Henry’s Garnet,’ and a compact form called ‘Little Henry.’

Oakleaf hydrangea has enjoyed a long history as a popular native garden shrub because of its showy flower dusters in spring. Autumn brings it into glory again when the large, coarse-textured leaves turn a variety of hues from burgundy to red to purple. Care must be taken to provide the specific site conditions this plant requires in order for it to prosper as they prefer alkaline soils and a shady woodland setting with rich, well-drained soil. Supplemental lime will need to be provided if your soils are acidic. Oakleaf hydrangea appreciates a good drink of water in dry periods and cultivars include the showy ‘Snow Flake’ with flower cluster well over a foot in length, and ‘Pee Wee,’ a compact variety.

My personal favorite in the fall is Elliot’s blueberry as it lights up the forest understory when the lacy foliage turns scarlet in autumn. You can see this shrub along the Arboretum pathways. Doing well in both poorly drained and well drained acidic soils, it will also grow in a variety of sun exposures, although fruiting is best in full sun. The tasty berries make this a great plant for the wildlife garden, as well as for blueberry muffins.

One of the most glorious fall performances takes place in our Southern Mississippi’s savanna areas, as native grasses reach for the sky, intertwined with late season perennials such as liatris, aster, and swamp sunflower. What a sight when the meadows are adorned in their early morning dew-jewels, and briefly transform into an ethereal world captured by the early morning sun.

At the Mississippi State University Extension website ( gardeners may download two excellent publications on Mississippi shrubs and trees. See, and pubs/publications/p2.1.14.pdf. Many additional resources about native plants and sustainable landscaping are available here.

The Crosby Arboretum conducts quarterly native plant sales, where many of these plants can be obtained, as well as regular programs and events that provide opportunities for learning more about the natural environment, and gardening with native plants. For more information, visit the Arboretum’s website at