Plant Green to See Red

(This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener September 2011 issue) By Nancy Buley, J. Frank Schmidt & Sons
an image of Maple 'Flashfire'

Maple 'Flashfire', photo courtesy J. Frank Schmidt & Sons

If your urge to “go green” by planting shade trees includes a desire to “see red” when autumn rolls around, you are in luck. Red Sunset® Maple, October Glory® Maple, and Autumn Blaze® Maple are all tried and true, successful shade trees that are widely recommended and planted. All turn varying shades of bright red in autumn and are excellent choices for summer shade. However, if your gardening goals include escaping from the ordinary, here are some new maple varieties that sport deep green, heat-defying summer foliage. Come autumn, they will transform your landscape into the brightest on the block.

Redpointe® Maple (Acer rubrum ‘Frank Jr.’ PP16769) is a rare combination of cool

An image of maple 'Redpointe'

'Redpointe' Maple, photo courtesy J. Frank Schmidt & Sons

summer shade, vibrant fall color, and symmetrical form. Its refined leaves emerge medium green and mature to a rich, dark green color in response to the heat of summer. Its very uniform branching and dominant central leader result in an elegant, formal-looking tree. Vigorous-growing and adaptable, this stately shade tree has a neat, formal look and turns brilliant red in autumn. It brings improved heat tolerance and improved form to the Red Maple family.

A. Waldbart & Sons Nursery (Florissant, MO, and Dorsey, IL) is one of the first in the region to carry Redpointe® Maple. Garden center manager Jack Cunningham calls it an excellent addition to their shade tree line. “From a grower’s standpoint, we really like this tree because it’s very easy to grow, requiring very little training,” he notes. “It’s also easy for the homeowner. They just need to water it and let it go. It has very sturdy branch angles and a nice straight central leader. And the fall red color is outstanding!”

Sugar maples (Acer saccharum) are top performing shade trees that turn on the color in autumn. These new introductions are notable for improved resistance to leaf scorch and tatter. Flashfire® Maple (Acer saccharum ‘JFS-Caddo2’) is also new; a glowing beacon in the landscape for those determined to find it. Selected from a western Oklahoma seed source, it has the brightest red color of any of the sugar maples adapted to the heat and humidity of the Southern Plains. Dark green summer foliage, mildew resistance, strong growth and brilliant red, early fall color are reasons to seek it out. Fall Fiesta® Maple (Acer saccharum ‘Bailsta’) sports dark green leaves that turn orange, yellow and red in autumn. It was recently named a Missouri Botanic Garden Plant of Merit® for its excellent performance in the lower Midwest, and is a great choice if your fall color preferences lean toward orange and orange-red.

an image of maple 'Pacific Sunset'

'Pacific Sunset' maple, photo courtesy J. Frank Schmidt & Sons

Shantung Maple (Acer truncatum) also has earned recognition in the Plant of Merit program for its outstanding performance in local landscapes. Crossed with Norway Maple (Acer platanoides), its hybrid offspring offer the best traits of both species, being tough and adaptable shade trees of medium scale as they mature to approximately 35 feet tall by 25 feet wide. Pacific Sunset® Maple foliage gets more beautiful as the season wears on.  Leaves emerge with strong reddish tints that mature to deep green. Outstanding glossy-green foliage shines bright even in the heat of late summer. Autumn brings bright red leaves with splashes of orange and yellow.  It is a favorite at Frisella Nursery (Defiance, MO), according to Babette Briagas, who notes that it is tough as well as beautiful. “The glossy, deep green summer foliage resists windburn, sun scorch and even Japanese beetles,” she says. “The most prominent feature though, would have to be the fall color. It starts out with blotches of yellow, orange and green. These colors slowly transform into a vibrant globe of red-orange in the height of the season.” Norwegian Sunset® Maple is also a top performer. Its fall color leans more to bright orange than to red. Both are notable for pest resistance, drought tolerance and ease of care.

Non-Maple Natives Blush Red, Too!

Though the cultivated maple varieties featured above set the bar high for brilliant red fall foliage, there are some straight natives beyond the maple family that hold their own in the crimson category. We asked Wayne Lovelace of Forrest Keeling Nursery in Elsberry, MO, for his favorites, and he provided us with a short list of natives that can be radically red as well.   If you want to mix up your tree selection, try the following: Quercus michauxii (Swamp Chestnut Oak), Sassafrass albidum (Sassafrass), Nyssa sylvatica (Black Gum) and Rhus copallina (Flameleaf Sumac). –ed.