Fall Leaf Color in Texas

by Dr. William C. Welch, Professor & Landscape Horticulturist
Texas AgriLife Extension Service, College Station, TX
Pistache tree on Texas A&M Campus.jpg
Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis) on Texas A&M campus
Japanese Maple (Acer species)
Japanese Maple (Acer species)
Chinese Pistache
Chinese Pistache (P. chinensis)

Fall leaf color is elusive and inconsistent in Texas. There are trees that are colorful but certainly not as uniform as the stunning displays of New England Sugar Maples and western aspens. The showiest of the oaks are Shumard Red Oak (Quercus schumardii) and Texas red oak (Q. texana). These are part of a large group of oaks that shed their leaves in the fall/winter, in contrast to the live oak (Quercus virginiana), which are considered evergreen but actually shed most of their foliage in late winter/spring. Texas red oaks are fairly common in our Hill Country and are more modest in size (usually 20-30' tall) than the Shumard, which may reach 70-80'. Another colorful native is the sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) with its star shaped leaves and winged protuberances on its stems. Cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) turns a fairly uniform yellow in fall and is a dependable small to medium size tree.

Among our most colorful trees are some of the imports from the Orient. Chinese pistachio trees (Pistacia chinensis) have pinnately compound leaves and tend to be rounded in form as they mature to 40-50'. Leaf color ranges from bright yellow to dark maroon. Chinese tallow (Sapium sebiferum) has become a pest tree in many places but is one of our most reliable sources of bright yellow to dark maroon heart-shaped leaves. Japanese persimmons (Diospyros kaki) not only has beautifully colored foliage but beautiful globe shaped bright orange and delicious fruit. Our native persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) can have colorful leaves and smaller bright orange fruits.

If you live in an area of Texas that has acid soils, Japanese maples are a possibility. They are fairly small trees, usually less than 20' with a similar spread. Southern sugar maples are native to parts of East Texas and can also be showy in fall as can Acer rubrum drummondii, the swamp red maple that not only has colored leaves in fall but colorful winged seed pods (samaras) that ripen in spring.

Crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) can have colorful leaves in fall along with their beautiful smooth trunks with exfoliating bark that reveals greenish, reddish and silver marbling. 'Natchez' is a popular white flowering crape myrtle with cinnamon colored trunks. In addition to their handsome flowers for many months each summer many crape myrtles have colorful foliage each fall.

Another mass of fall color often mistaken as a tree is actually a vine. Poison ivy (Rhus radicans) vigorously climbs the trunks of deciduous oaks and other trees and is one of the most dependable sources of fall color in the natural landscape. Although a toxic pest poison ivy fruit is an important food for many bird species.

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