Out My Backdoor: Stage Your Own Fall Foliage Show

Red leaf on sassafras tree in fall
Fall sassafras foliage


By Terry W. Johnson

For those of us who do not live in north Georgia, we know that to enjoy the best fall foliage show in the state, you need to make the long journey to this beautiful region of the Peach State. Although there is no question any trip to north Georgia in autumn is well worth it, did you realize that you can create your own fall foliage show in your yard?

Obviously, your show will lack the panoramic scope of the extravaganza that blankets the mountains and valleys of our northernmost counties. Nevertheless, it can feature many of the breathtaking colors that make this renown north Georgia event so special. Here is how you can do it.

To a large extent, north Georgia's fall foliage spectacle is so breathtaking because it is composed of a mosaic of colors. The leaves of a wide variety of plants create a gigantic quilt composed of different shades of red, yellow, and maroon. Keep this in mind when you create your own foliage show.

As we all know, Georgia is blessed with many species of native plants that bear beautiful fall foliage. As such, if you are lucky, some of these natives may already be growing in your yard. If not, all you will have to do is incorporate some of the needed plants.

Here is a short list of some you can use to create a kaleidoscope of color in your yard.

  • Flowering dogwood: If you do not already have one or more of these attractive small trees in your yard, you need to fill this void. In autumn, the elliptical leaves of flowering dogwoods vary from maroon to red. Its bright red berries augment the tree’s beauty.
  • Sweetgum: This large tree is often maligned because it drops a crop of seed pods adorned with semisoft spikes that have to raked up each fall. However, if you don't mind dealing with the gumballs, you will be treated with star-shaped leaves colored from yellow to maroon and crimson.
  • Yellow poplar (tulip poplar): The fall foliage of this tall tree is bright yellow. Caution: Since yellow poplar can exceed 60–100 feet in height, it is not a good choice for small yards. This fast-growing tree is cloaked with leaves that vary in shape, though most are described as saddle-shaped.
  • Hickory: At least eight species of hickories are native to Georgia. Sadly, as hardwood forests continue to disappear in many parts of the state, it is becoming more difficult to find hickories growing in the wild. Ironically, in some locales the salvation of these large native hardwoods is that they are beginning to show up in home landscapes. One reason this is no surprise is that golden-yellow fall foliage of hickories is truly stunning. Your local University of Georgia Extension Agent and the Georgia Forestry Commission can recommend which hickories are best suited for your neck of the woods.
  • Red maple: It is not unusual to find maples being planted in yards. However, more often than not these trees are not native to Georgia or even the U.S. This is unfortunate as they are rarely of any value to native wildlife such as butterflies and moths and other wildlife. But there are a number of native maple species that thrive in Georgia. One of the most common found throughout the state is the red maple. It makes a great shade tree and in fall, its foliage turns red.
  • Sourwood: This small to medium-sized tree deserves a place in our yards. In the spring, its flowers attract swarms of bees and other pollinators. In the fall, its foliage turns bright red and is accented with clusters of tan fruit.
  • Vaccinium: Georgia is home to some 20 species of native vacciniums, commonly referred to as wild blueberries. When I built my house, I left a number of them in place when clearing the property for the house and yard. Ever since, each fall these shrubs have rewarded me with the beauty of their maroon to red foliage.
  • Oakleaf hydrangea: This native shrub is well known for its beautiful blossoms and fall color. In fall, its oak leaf-shaped leaves turn pink , yellow, crimson or bronze. I feel the leaves are most stunning when they are crimson. Interestingly, William Bartram, who is considered to be our first professional botanist, is credited with discovering this native. He first saw the plant in what is now Crawford County in middle Georgia. Although native to central Georgia, oakleaf hydrangea is widely grown in Georgia gardens.
  • Muscadine grape: Some of our most stunning fall foliage is not produced by a tree or shrub, but by this woody vine that grows profusely in our state. Some muscadines climb to the tops of the trees. There, they remain hidden in plain sight until autumn, their clear yellow leaves cascade down from the canopies of their tree hosts.
  • Redbud: The redbud is planted more often for its purple-pink, early-spring flowers than its foliage. However, in fall this small tree's heart-shaped leaves turn greenish yellow. Redbud grows in the wild across the state, except in southeast Georgia, where it is considered rare.
  • Sassafras: The leaves of these small trees feature either one or two lobes. The two-lobed leaves look much like mittens. Regardless of their shape, their red, yellow or orange color rivals anything on display in autumn.
  • Blackgum (black tupelo): A great source of food for wildlife, this small tree is cloaked with bright red foliage in fall. Unfortunately, although its range extends across the state, it is uncommon in yards.
  • Smooth sumac: A handful of sumacs are native to Georgia, however, the two most of us are likely to see are winged and smooth sumac. Both grow in my yard. The one that produces the most striking foliage at the Johnson homestead is smooth sumac. Its leaves are one of my fall favorites. The compound leaves and fuzzy fruit of this small tree both turn eye-popping red in fall.

I hope that you will find a place in your yard for one or more of these native plants. While it is impossible of us to recreate the grandeur of Mother Nature's mountain foliage spectacle, the splashes of color that adorn our yards will allow us to enjoy the splendor of fall foliage without having to leave home. 

Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns, read Terry’s Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and check out his latest book, “A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.”