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Fall Color Without Harming the Habitat

Popcorn tree 2As the trees begin to turn various shades of red, many people begin to inquire about the Popcorn trees.  While their autumn coloration is one of the reasons they were introduced to the Florida environment, it took years for us to realize what a menace Popcorn trees become.  Sapium sebiferum, the Chinese tallowtree or Popcorn tree, was introduced to Charleston, South Carolina in the late 1700s for oil production and use in making candles. Since then, it has spread to every coastal state from North Carolina to Texas, and inland to Arkansas. In Florida it occurs as far south as Tampa.  It is most likely to spread to wildlands adjacent to or downstream from areas landscaped with Sapium sebiferum, displacing other native plant species in those habitats.  Therefore, Chinese tallowtree was listed as a noxious weed by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Noxious Weed List (5b-57.007 FAC) in 1998, which means that possession with the intent to sell, transport, or plant is illegal in the state of Florida.

Although Florida is not known for the brilliant fall color enjoyed by other northern and western states, we do have a number of trees that provide some fall color for our North Florida landscapes.  Red maple provides brilliant red, orange and sometimes yellow leaves. The native Florida maple, Acer saccharum var. floridum, displays a combination of bright yellow and orange color during fall.  And there are many Trident and Japanese maples that provide striking fall color.   Another excellent native tree is Blackgum, Nyssa sylvatica. This tree is a little slow in its growth rate but can eventually grow to seventy-five feet in height. It provides the earliest show of red to deep purple fall foliage. Others include Persimmon, Diospyros virginiana, Sumac, Rhus spp. and Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua.  In cultivated trees that pose no threat to native ecosystems, Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia spp. offers varying degrees of orange, red and yellow in its leaves before they fall. There are many cultivars – some that grow several feet to others that reach nearly thirty feet in height. Chinese pistache, Pistacia chinensis, can deliver a brilliant orange display.Trident Maple

There are a number of dependable oaks for fall color, too. Shumardi, Southern Red and Turkey are a few to consider. These oaks have dark green deeply lobed leaves during summer turning vivid red to orange in fall. Turkey oak holds onto its leaves all winter as they turn to brown and are pushed off by new spring growth. Our native Yellow poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera, and hickories, Carya spp., provide bright yellow fall foliage. And it’s difficult to find a more crisp yellow than fall Ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba, leaves. These trees represent just a few choices for fall color.  Including one or several of these trees in your landscape, rather than allowing the Popcorn trees to grow will enhance the season while protecting the ecosystem from invasive plant pests.

3 Comments on “Fall Color Without Harming the Habitat

  1. Sheila,

    How timely for fall planting. Thank you so much.

    Elizabeth Major

  2. How do deciduous hardwood temperate trees change in panhandle Florida? I know the leaf exchange is later & into much of the winter? How long are the trees green 7-8 months & how long with fall colors? when do they drop leaves & how long before new leaves bud & when? It is like the trees are just “semi-deciduous” in the panhandle ?

    • It depends on the species. Red Oak, sweetgum, ash and most other hardwoods are deciduous as normal. Water oak and laural oak slowly lose their leaves all winter long, are pretty bare in February until the spring green up. Magnolia and Live Oak hold on to their leaves throughout the winter and shed in spring before new growth occurs. Bald Cyprus is 100% deciduous and Pecan are late to drop their leaves and the last to break dormancy. Many other trees lie in the middle of the spectrum. Fall color here on trees is seasonal and varies with the fall temperature and rain level except on Sweetgum, and a few other species like the invasive non-native tallow tree which are fairly consistent .