Small shrubs with autumn colour

Judith Adam

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'Mount Airy' fothergilla's fall foliage is a lovely shade of orange-apricot. (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)
'Mount Airy' fothergilla's fall foliage is a lovely shade of orange-apricot. (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)
‘Mount Airy’ fothergilla’s fall foliage is a lovely shade of orange-apricot. (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)

The trees are just past the peak of their gorgeous autumn colours. But how many blazing red sugar maples can I pack into my front garden? Not many, in fact, none at all. I’ve been trying to find small shrubs (or shrubs I can trim to a reasonable size) that will take on bright autumn hues. My first effort was red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia, Zone 5), a leggy shrub with charming white flowers in spring, clusters of black berries and brilliant wine-red fall colour. It was probably not the best choice, as Aronia species tend to sucker and make colonies as they mature, and are better placed in a less confined site. But that never became an issue because Japanese beetles quickly discovered my two Aronia shrubs, and skeletonized the leaves long before the temperature dropped in autumn. I had to remove them, and scored another one for the voracious beetles.

Next, I planted a dwarf Japanese maple called ‘Pixie’ (Acer palmatum ‘Pixie’, Zone 6), with a mature height of about eight feet (2.5 m); mine is now five feet (1.5 m) tall. The leaves are dark maroon in summer, turning to flaming red in fall. This little tree has a tight, bushy habit with many side branches and looks exactly like a miniature ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese maple. It’s never had any dieback through three winters, and in colder zones it could probably be grown in a large container and taken into a garage for winter storage. I also have a lace-leaf ‘Viridis’ Japanese maple (A. p. dissectum ‘Viridis’, Zone 6) in the garden, and it’s a strong grower with gold and orange colours this week.

Last year I added a dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla x intermedia ‘Mount Airy’, Zone 5), with honey-scented white bottle-brush flowers and gold stamens appearing in spring on naked branches, a lovely picture in the early light. The shrub’s form is open and airy, with graceful wand-type stems holding green to blue-green small leaves that turn gorgeous orange-apricot flushed with raspberry in autumn. It’s quite a lovely specimen today, and will perhaps heighten in colour before dropping its leaves. This is a real winner!

I feel I’m making headway with adding autumn shrub colour, and have one more plant to pursue, the common hedge cotoneaster (Cotoneaster lucidus, Zone 5). This cotoneaster has small, lustrous dark green leaves and the potential to be a vigorous grower; but it has a sparse root system, and that makes it not so difficult to get out of the ground if necessary. It is also tolerant of hard pruning (hence the use for hedging), and will accept poor, dry soil. This is the kind of shrub that can mask a compost area (my potential purpose for it), or can be set into a vacant corner to fill space in summer, but will turn to flaming red in autumn.

My goodness, but I’m already making a spring shopping list!


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7 thoughts on “Small shrubs with autumn colour”

  1. Hi Karen,
    Thanks for telling me about your gorgeous enkianthus shrubs; you’ve piqued my curiosity. I’ve never considered them because of their need for acid soil (mine is definitely alkaline). Do you happen to know the general level of your soil pH? I could be very good to them with lots of buffering organic material in their soil, but I can’t make it consistently acid.

    I did some quick reading, and came up with these good choices for enkianthus (Zone 5) with red autumn colour (although all will have some colour): ‘Hollandia’, ‘Red Velvet’, ‘Rubrum’, ‘Showy Lantern’. Of course, these are beautiful plants in any season, and the spring flowers are lovely.
    I hope someone will want to get these next spring… And I might see you there!
    — Judith

  2. Hello Jeff,
    I was writing about my Zone 6a garden, so of course the shrubs mentioned are selected for that hardiness zone.
    But if your garden is in Zone 4 or Zone 3, how about these autumn colourful shrubs: Amur maple (Acer ginnala ‘Flame’, Zone 3, large shrub form or small tree), burning bush (Euonymus alatus, Zone 4, full size or compact dwarf), Peking cotoneaster (Cotoneaster acutifolius, Zone 3), redbark dogwood(Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’, Zone 3), highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum, Zone 3), Japanese rose (Rosa rugosa, Zone 3).

    Those selections should light you up!
    — Judith

  3. Hi Cindy,

    You raise a good point, how to find desirable plants. Garden centres carry plants they think we want, and that are hardy to the zone sold in. But they can’t read minds when ordering plants in advance, so we have to let them know what we’re looking for. I know this doesn’t solve an immediate problem, but it will help to eventually broaden selection. When looking for something that isn’t in the garden centre, write down both common and botanical names and hardiness zone, and make a point of putting this information into the hand of the manager. This shows your interest as a customer, and that’s appreciated. Hopefully new plant choices will show up.

    If there is a particular plant mentioned that you want to source, just ask me. If I can remember where I bought it, I’ll tell you; and if not, I’ll try to make suggestions. If I have it, well, it must have come from somewhere!

    — Judith

  4. Judith, you may want to check out the Enkianthus family. I have 2 at present ‘Red Vein’ and ‘Showy Lantern’ with the first one showing brilliant reds and the second flame oranges and yellows. Their form is also spectacular and are well suited to smaller yards. I also have the Mount Airy fothergilla and mine is just starting to put on its fall show here in Nova Scotia.

  5. Hi there, I read your blog everytime it comes out! One thing I am interested in is where, where are the plants you recommend available. Many times I note them down and never am able to find them. It would be useful to have a shopping guide with the recommendations. When I visit my favourite plant centres the choice is, well what they have on hand. Thanks once again for your articles!

    • Hello Cindy,
      Judith may want to reply with her suggestions, but I’ll offer my comments, as well. There are a few mail-order companies that offer unusual shrubs and trees. Two that I know of are Hortico ( and Gardenimport (; the later company offers mainly bulbs and perennials, and some shrubs. Perhaps there are readers who could suggest other companies they know of in their area. If you’re a member of your local horticultural society, ask members where they find gems for their garden. They’ll know which nurseries in your area have the best selection. Another suggestion is to visit local botanical gardens. They sometimes have plant sales to raise funds for their facility.


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