Many of of our blog readers become nostalgic as Autumn progresses. They miss the colorful fall foliage they enjoyed “Back East.” Fear not! You can enjoy brilliant fall foliage right here in the Southwest! Just add some of these plants.
A Note About Common Names of Plants
The Southwest is large! Plant common names vary widely and wildly across the region, sometimes with 12 or so names for the same plant. Because of that I have loaded this post with the scientific names — to help you when you go shopping for some of these beauties.
Colorful Trees and Shrubs
Tops in colorful trees is the Chinese pistachio (Pistacia chinensis). Leaves range from shades of peach and pumpkin-orange, through red to vivid scarlet. I also adore the Mexican buckeye (Uqnadia speciosa) – coppery to orange in autumn, the fragrant purple flowers emerge before the coppery leaves next spring.
Desert cotton (Gossypium thurberi) has leaves that turn multiple hues -– purple, red, scarlet and even orange. Sand cherry (Prunus besseyi) has leaves that turn coppery orange, and an edible fruit in season. Meanwhile, if it gets cold the evergreen nandina (Nandina domestica), will turn red to purplish or coppery, depending on variety.
There are many additional species of trees and shrubs that have colorful Autumn leaves, but mostly they are in various shades of yellow. I’m sorry to say these are not necessarily low-water selections. Look for the honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), western soapberry (Sapindus saponaria var. drummondii), Arizona ash (Fraxinus species), cottonwood (Populus fremontii), and Arizona sycamore (Platanus racemosa var. wrightii).
Colorful and Edible
Some trees can provide fruits, nuts and autumn color! Like the pecan (Carya illinoinensis) – dusky yellow, often coppery leaves. The list of other plants with edible fruit and generally yellow autumn leaves includes: jujube (Ziziphus jujube), canyon hackberry (Celtis reticulata), Arizona walnut (Juglans major), pomegranate (Punica granitum), lemonade berry (Rhus trilobata), Western elderberry (Sambucus mexicana), mulberry, (Morus species), and finally, the New Mexico locust (Robinia neomexicana). The edible part of this locust is only the flowers – all the rest of the plant is toxic.
October is “National Go on a Field Trip Month,” so here is a fun field trip for some fabulous fall foliage – head to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, just south of Superior, Arizona. The glowing hues of autumn start in mid-October. But if you wait a little, the peak color is typically mid-November through mid-December. Due to range in elevation and exposure, not to mention the genetics of the trees themselves, there are ample opportunities to “leaf peep” now through December. This advance notice is so you can plan your outing. It’s an especially nice trip with Thanksgiving visitors.
If you live in New Mexico, there will be some stunning color in the Santa Fe Botanical Garden.
If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my free lectures that I mention on my Facebook page. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including “Month-by-Month Guide to Gardening in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada” (Cool Springs Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there we will get a few pennies.
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