Growing up in the northeast, autumn was the time to be outside. Crisp mornings and warm afternoons meant that the trees were ablaze with yellows, reds, orange, and purple. It was truly magical and honestly one of things I miss living in Florida as many plants just go from a transition of green to less green or bare. However, a few plants in our area can give you good fall color if the weather agrees.
What causes Fall color in forests?
As cool temperatures arrive, deciduous trees begin to prepare for the winter. As they pull nutrients out of their leaves, the chlorophyll that makes them green decays and is replaced by the other pigments already present. This color change is very dramatic in areas with many deciduous trees. However, Florida’s forests are full of evergreens that do not undergo this shift such as live oaks, pines, and palms.
The amount of fall color is also very weather dependent, with a steady decline in temperatures creating a more dramatic show than years when early frost or freeze is present. The cold speeds up the eventual leaf drop. When our daytime temperatures stay warm until we hit a frost or freeze, this can cause leaf drop to happen quickly with little color change.
A native Florida tree, sassafras (Sassafras albinum) can provide a beautiful yellow, orange, red, or purple fall color in the landscape. While forming dense thickets in cooler climates due to its tendency to sucker, in our area it is usually limited to a small to medium sized tree. It does prefer organic soils and a bit of moisture. For more information about this tree for North Florida, check out: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/st584
Maples can have some of the most beautiful autumn colors throughout the country and Florida is no exception, even though it is a bit more limited. We have the native Red Maple (Acer rubrum), the Florida Maple (Acer saccharum) as well as several other varieties available in trade that may even be a robust red throughout the growing season. For more information on the red maple see https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/st041
Often maligned in the landscape because of its spiky seed pods, sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is a large native tree that can have good yellow fall color. They do prefer moister sites but can be very drought tolerant after establishment. Check out the sweet gum here: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/st358
A large native shrub, oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) can change into a beautiful purplish red plant during autumn. Another good aspect of this shrub through the winter is its attractive peeling bark and the tendency for flower bracts to stay on the plant, giving it a ghostly bloom. For more about this awesome (and my personal favorite) shrub, check out https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fp259
Outside of these 4 options, there are several other species that give some good color as well. Bald cypresses, oaks, hickories, or pears are some great options in the landscape. Another great thing to remember about the fall is that all of the dropped leaves make excellent mulch. Stay away from disposing of your leaves and reuse them in the landscape or in your compost pile instead.