Many trees and shrubs take the spotlight in the fall with an array of foliage colors, but they are not the only ones who can provide a late-season “wow” factor. Several perennials really stand out as they welcome cooler temperatures and wind down into dormancy. Here are some that show off brilliant fall foliage with shades of color that would make even a sugar maple (Acer saccharum, Zones 3–8) envious.
Miscanthus sinensis var. pupurascens, Zones 4–9
With its orange-red fall color, flame grass is a beacon in the garden. It’s an upright, compact, clump-forming grass that reaches 3 to 4 feet in height. The foliage is gray-green with a reddish tinge in summer. This reddish tinge brightens and eventually becomes a brilliant orange-red in fall. The foliage continues to darken to colors of burgundy and purple by winter. In late summer, tiny flowers appear in tassel-like inflorescences that gradually turn into whimsical white plumes that persist into winter, adding further late-season interest. This grass a must-have for fans of fall colors.
Geranium sanguineum, Zones 3–9
For a shorter perennial with great fall foliage, turn to bloody cranesbill or bloody geranium. Do not let the name scare you, as it is in reference to the flower color (bright purple) and attractive red foliage that appears after the first fall frost. The mounding plants reach 9 to 12 inches tall, and given enough room and time they can spread up to 2 feet wide, making for an excellent ground cover that has the potential to make your Halloween extra festive.
Coreopsis tripteris, Zones 3–8
If you are looking for something with a little more height for the back of the garden, Atlantic coreopsis provides beautiful deep red to purple foliage and stems in the fall. Plants reach 4 to 8 feet tall and 2 to 8 feet wide. This species is tolerant of heat, humidity, drought, and poor soils, making it through our seasons with ease and providing a lovely backdrop to an autumn garden.
Using these perennials with fantastic fall foliage will ensure that even the smallest garden can display all the colors of autumn.
—Chris Schlenker is horticulture and grounds manager at McCrory Gardens of South Dakota State University in Brookings, South Dakota.