As the leaves turn and leaf-peepers arrive, we tend to focus on autumn leaves as the source of natural beauty in the fall. But why look only to the trees for color?

There are many plants and shrubs that can make your garden—and our town—beautiful throughout the autumn season.

Annuals and perennials

While you’ll often see yards adorned with mums, ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum, pansies, and ornamental kale, there are many native plants that are just coming into their own in fall.

Fall-flowering asters come in many colors and sizes. ‘October Skies” (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) is one particularly attractive cultivar of a native aster species that grows only 1 to 2 feet tall and is covered in beautiful blue blossoms for much of the fall.

For deep shade, try the low growing white wood asters (Eurybia divaricate). If you want plants for the back of the border, New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) range up to 5 feet tall.

Goldenrods (Solidago spp.) are also members of the aster family and come in many varieties. Although there are many named cultivars available at nurseries, you may have some desirable varieties that volunteer in your yard.

I have allowed a large stand of tall goldenrod (Solidago canadensis var. scabra) to grow along the roadway in front of my house—this reaches 4 to 5 feet tall and has large flower plumes that last for weeks. It spreads aggressively by underground stolons and is great at keeping out weeds and preventing erosion.

My favorite goldenrod is sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora), with its much more refined anise-scented shiny leaves, smaller plumes that reach only about 2 to 3 feet tall and a clumping habit. It spreads easily from seed if you encourage it!

Many other native wildflowers are beginning to flower on roadsides and in gardens. For tall plants that make a strong statement, the yellow perennial swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) and the dusky purple Joy Pye weeds (Eutrochium spp.) are great for damper spots in your garden. The shorter turtlehead (Chelone lyoni), named for the shape of its purple flowers, also thrives where soils are moist.


Shrubs also offer fall leaf color and bright berries. Fothergilla and oakleaf hydrangeas not only have good autumn color, but attractive bark once their leaves fall.  American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) with distinctive purple berries, chokeberries (Aronia arbutifolia with red berries and Aronia melanocarpa with black berries), and winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata) with red berries are all well-behaved native shrubs that are desirable additions to your landscape.

If you don’t have room for more shrubs in your landscape, consider invasive shrubs, such as burning bush (Euonymus alatus), Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), and Japanese spirea (Spiraea japonica) with one of these good-looking natives.


Finally, consider a vine to light up your fall landscape. Two deciduous native vines with fall appeal are Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) for its beautiful red leaves, and virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) with delicate white flowers when much of the plant world is turning brown. Both can grow to great lengths in a single season, but are easy to pull up and to cut back during the winter if you keep them in a designated area! Best trained on an arbor or trellis, they can provide a pretty focal point.

Note that Virginia creeper is not for growing on your home or any surface where its adhesive disks may cause damage. Don’t let it overwhelm trees or shrubs—consider letting it grow along the ground where you could use some additional cover in the summer months.

Be sure you plant or encourage the native virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), not sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora), the exotic fragrant vine that overruns many wild areas in Black Mountain. 

You can tell you have the native, not only by the lack of sickening sweet fragrance, but by its toothed leaves—the invasive’s leaves have smooth edges.

Debbie Green has been a member of the Beautification Committee for over 10 years and maintains one of the committee’s sites in town. She enjoys gardening with native plants, as well as growing flowers, herbs, and vegetables. Debbie is also a regular contributor to the Buncombe County Extension Master Gardener blog at

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