Celebrating Autumn

I am blessed to live in the beautiful Adelaide Hills. Here we get to enjoy and celebrate the four seasons.  In autumn, hordes of city dwellers make a pilgrimage up the hill to drive around and appreciate the autumn tones.  Why is our autumn colour better than that on the Plains?  Well, with most plants autumn colour is triggered by our cold nights.  So I think it is great to include plants in my garden which celebrate this delightful season.

mt loft gardens with lake

All too often I see gardens planted with the same palette of plants, whether they are in a cool temperate climate, in a Mediterranean climate, an arid zone or in the subtropics.  While some of these plants may well be great plants, I also think it’s important to celebrate what grows well in your area at different times of the year – after all ‘Vive le difference’.  So if you live in an area where you do get great autumn tones, here are some of my favourite autumn performers.


There are too many gorgeous autumn trees to list them all however here are some of my favourites grouped according to whether they are large, medium or small trees.

Large trees

Large trees suitable for large gardens or properties include Pin Oaks, Claret ash, Beech, Gingko, Tulip trees and Lipstick Maples.  This last group of trees can be seen growing in many council plantings around the Hills such as the road from the freeway into Hahndorf, the Main Street of Uraidla and the carpark of Keith Stephensen Park (off Flaxley Rd) in Mt Barker.

pyrus rowMedium trees

Medium trees would include the ornamental pears (Pyrus species) which are very popular.  There are so many varieties that you could choose a small, medium or large sized tree, as well as several varieties with an upright columnar form.  I grow seven different varieties in my garden and am a big fan of them as they are reliable, hardy, I love their autumn colour and their beautiful single white blossoms in spring.  Other medium sized trees for autumn colour include the Chinese tallow tree (Sapium sebiferum), Acer ‘Sensation, and the Chinese pistachia (Pistachia chinensis).

Small trees

Small trees include Japanese Maples (suitable for cool, protected or semi-shaded positions only), Washington Thorns (Crataegus phaenopyrum) and flowering cherries.  If you want a small tree with the added bonus of edible fruit as well as autumn foliage choose a persimmon or fruiting crab apple.

Now is the perfect time to visit your local nursery or garden centre and make your plants choices, even if you don’t actually buy the trees till they are bare rooted in early winter.  Another great place to go for autumn inspiration is right on our doorstep – the Mt Lofty Botanic Gardens – simply breathtaking in autumn.


  • The Guelder rose or snowball tree (Viburnum opulus sterile) is a tall shrub or small tree loved for its intense autumn shades and it has the added bonus of producing round bunches of stunning creamy white flowers in spring.
  • There are a number of smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria) cultivars like ‘Flame’ and ‘Grace’ also have vibrant autumn tones.  These tall shrubs produce wispy plumes of flowers which give them their common name.
  • There are several varieties of May bushes (Spirea) which give an impressive autumn display.  Spirea thunbergia is a dwarf shrub which has very fine leaves which turn orange and purple in autumn.  In spring it is smothered with tiny single white flowers.  Spirea japonica ‘Gold Flame’ is also a dwarf shrub with flat heads of vibrant pink flowers in summer, and has attractive golden toned foliage in the warmer months, which intensifies in autumn with orange and red highlights.
  • The Winged Spindle Tree or Cork Bush (Euonymous elatus) has brilliant red foliage in autumn.  It is a medium shrub with corky bark on its trunk and branches.
  • The deciduous varieties of Berberis or Barberries vary from dwarf to tall shrubs and turn intense shades of red and orange in autumn. They are rather prickly though however this can be used to you advantage as an excellent security hedge.
  • While all of these plants are deciduous and lose their leaves over winter, one popular evergreen shrub which gives autumn tones yet remains evergreen is the Dwarf Sacred Bamboo (Nandina nana).  These compact dwarf shrubs are hugely popular on the Plains as well and sometimes viewed as a bit common (mass plantings in fast food outlet carparks haven’t helped with this!?), yet they are remarkable and can look great in the garden.  They have attractive foliage all year round, and with the onset of the cooler weather, the lush green foliage takes on the most vibrant autumn tones of red and scarlet.  These extremely hardy dwarf shrubs, are equally happy growing in full sun or complete shade, and new cultivars such as ‘Obsession’ have improved colour and reliability.

virginia creeper red leavesClimbers

  • The most commonly grow climber for autumn colour is the glory vine (Vitis vinifera) however there is a special form of this with larger foliage which is even more breathtaking called the Japanese glory vine (Vitis coignetiae).  These climbers are perfect for growing over a pergola and can be used to keep your house cool and shade in summer while letting the precious winter sunshine and warmth inside.
  • Boston ivy and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus tricuspidata and P. quinquefolia) are two self- clinging climbers which have stunning autumn tones and they can be used effectively to cover unattractive walls as they will stick directly onto brick, rendered walls, mesh or gyprock.
  • The blueberry creeper (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) is a more unusual deciduous climber and its foliage turns golden yellow before falling. Its main feature is an unusual crop of berries in autumn which range in colour from lilac, green, turquoise to dark blue and like glory vine it makes a great choice for an arch or pergola.

Whatever your space, work out how you can celebrate autumn in your garden with some spectacular autumn foliage.