In the US it’s not unusual for people to make a seasonal pilgrimage to see the ‘fall colours’, so renowned are their beauty.
The sudden shift of millions of trees from their summer green to autumn red foliage draws onlookers from around the country, including people who for the rest of the year would scarcely bat an eyelid at the beauty of the natural world.
In the UK it’s not such a tourist attraction, mainly because there aren’t really any parts of the country where large numbers of trees are in sparse supply. But there’s no denying that the autumnal medley of red is a sight worth seeing. That’s why we’ve pulled together some fantastic trees whose foliage turns red in the UK autumn.
Whether you use this list to plan a woodland walk so you can catch the turning colours as autumn sets in, or you use it to advise which trees to plant in your garden, we hope that these trees give you the chance to experience something beautiful.
Why do leaves turn red in autumn?
Before we launch into the list, here’s a little intro to why some leaves turn red when others don’t. The first thing to note is that chlorophyll, the chemical famously involved in photosynthesis, absorbs red and blue light, meaning that the green part of the spectrum is reflected back. This is why most plants usually look green.
In the autumn, certain plants use the excess sugar left over from homeostasis to create anthocyanins. This chemical produces a pigment that reflects the red part of the spectrum, creating vivid displays of colour that vary depending on the levels of anthocyanin and chlorophyll: a deep red leaf will have much more of the former, where an orange leaf will have more of a combination of the two.
Now, with the science out of the way, let’s take a look at some autumn trees that turn red in the UK.
1. Japanese maple
While the name is distinctly un-British, the Japanese maple grows a treat in our climate. Whether in the ground or in a container this tree will burst into a busy and beautifully coloured bloom as the summer begins to dwindle.
We particularly like the flexibility the Japanese maple affords gardeners. If you’re lucky enough to have a large outdoor space you can plant this in the ground and enjoy the gradual growth into a full-sized tree, whereas if you’re working with a smaller space, you can have a smaller plant thriving in a container. The tree is easy to take care of, too: just give a little mulch in spring, fertilise occasionally, and you’ll probably get away with minimal pruning or training as well.
2. Japanese rowan
Another plant whose name hails from the famous Asian island nation, the Japanese rowan sports red berries in autumn followed by a rich and distinctly autumnal bloom. As with the Japanese maple this plant can be grown as a tree or a shrub depending on the space you have available, affording a good amount of flexibility to a range of gardeners.
Japanese rowan is most often bought as a single stem tree which will give rise to a much larger one as the years go by. In the ground the maximum size is about 8×12 metres, achieved over a period of twenty years or more. In a container you should expect smaller growth, with the exact eventual dimensions determined by the size of the pot.
For healthiest growth choose a spot with full sun or partial shade, in any aspect. Soil acidity should be acidic or neutral, and try to avoid chalky soil if possible.
3. Forest pansy
Before you double check that you’re reading an article about trees that turn red, let us clarify: this plant, cercis canadensis, is different from the viola family of flowers, many of which are commonly known as pansies.
So, instead of the delightfully colourful flowers you’ll find in many a British garden, the forest pansy is a small tree that is renowned for its striking foliage. In spring and summer you can expect rich purple leaves, giving way to a wonderful yellow as they begin to fall.
This plant is interesting for fading out of redness in the autumn, rather than into it. Grown near plants that follow the opposite pattern, the shifting palettes of colour can create a striking effect.
For best results grow in full sun or partial shade, in a south- or west-facing aspect. You can expect an eventual size of about 8×10 metres, achieved over a period of about twenty years.
This tree goes by a few names: you may also see it called Snowy mespilus, juneberry, or amelanchier lamarckii. Whatever you call it; this is a great choice for gardens that need that little lift of autumnal colour. The snowy-white floral bloom in spring gives way to red fruit in summer and deep orange-red leaves in the autumn. This is one of our faves thanks to the sheer variety of colours on offer throughout the year.
The berries of this tree are edible, too, if you’re feeling adventurous. They’re part of a subset of berry that don’t enjoy enough fame and familiarity to make their way onto the supermarket shelves, but which are a tasty treat nonetheless. Also testament to what an appealing tree this is to have growing in your garden!
In terms of conditions, the juneberry tree likes full sun or partial shade, isn’t fussy in terms of aspect, and prefers acidic or neutral soil. Avoid prolonged exposure to excessive moisture.
5. Stag’s horn sumach
Here’s another plant with several names: also keep an eye out for rhus, velvet sumac, and vinegar tree. The stag’s horn sumach is renowned for its red autumnal display; to the degree that it’s one of the main reasons gardeners choose to grow it.
We also like this one for the intriguing floral clusters they display in spring and summer: the configuration and colour is unusual and striking, bringing something distinctive to your garden before the autumn bloom sets in.
Part of choosing the right tree for your garden is going for something that performs more than one function. With the amelanchier you get the novelty of an edible berry each for a few weeks each year. With the plants further up this list you get the quintessential autumn bloom And with stag’s horn sumach, you get two distinct seasons of visual interest, making this a plant with a lot to offer to the discerning gardener.
This tree thrives in full sun, but take care to avoid a north-facing aspect. Any soil acidity should be OK, and it will do well exposed or in shelter.
Things to keep in mind
When looking for a beautiful burst of red in autumn, there’s more to consider than just choosing plants and trees that turn red. You also need to remember that –
- Sunlight is important! Just as plants need sunlight to grow, the gentle rays encourage the reddening of the leaves in the autumn months. A plant in full sun or partial shade will have a much more impressive red display than one lurking in full shade.
- The soil needs to be within the correct pH range. As with sunlight, ensuring a plant has its needs satisfied when it comes to soil acidity will pave the way for the brightest red displays.
- You shouldn’t over-fertilise. Ease off on fertilising and watering your trees as autumn sets in, because over-feeding them will interrupt the colourful display.
Take it as ‘red’
While the fall colours in New England and other famed landscapes of America may be a sight to behold, red foliage is far from exclusive to these regions. In the UK we’re blessed to be in much closer proximity to our areas of outstanding national beauty, and even if you don’t want to make a holiday out of it, there are plenty of options to bring the illustrious red autumn bloom right into the comfort of your own back garden.
In this article we’ve spotlighted five trees with red leaves in autumn, but there are many more to choose from. So whether you’re a gardener with space for many trees in your ample backyard, or a gardener deciding which tree to plant in the one container you can fit on your small balcony, you’ve got plenty of options.
With young trees available to buy online and from many garden centres, you don’t need to wait years and years for the fruits of your labour to pay off, either. We hope you enjoyed this article, and that you are soon enjoying the rich medley of red in your very own garden.