Everyone seems to go wild for sugar maples trees in the fall because, here in New England, their leaves turn wonderful colors – yellow, orange and, best of all, red. But some trees and shrubs have reddish or purplish leaves all summer, and these, too, are very popular. Let’s take a look at a few of these.
My all-time favorite is the Japanese red maple. I grew up with a huge one in Connecticut, a great climbing tree for a young boy. The leaves are a deep wine red all summer and into the fall. It was probably 50 feet tall and wide.
In 1970 I dug up a small specimen from under my parents’ tree and brought it to my newly-purchased home in Cornish Flat, NH. Now, 48 years later, I still have the tree, but it is only about 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide. Our cold winters have kept it small – less than a quarter the size of the parent tree.
This Japanese red maple, last fall, was 47 years old at the time of the photo.
The Japanese red maple does best in full sun and rich soil, but will survive in part shade and less than perfect soil. Mine now gets just a few hours of sun each day as other trees nearby have grown tall. The hardiest variety for northern gardens is one called ‘Bloodgood’.
So what else can we grow? I like the copper beech (Fagus sylvatica purpurea). This is a variety of European beech and starts out in the spring with deep purple leaves. As the summer progresses, its leaves become more green. It is hardy in Zones 4 to 7, and is much more tolerant of poor soils than the American beech, our native species of beech. I do not have one, but wish I did.
Copper Beech in mid-summer
I do have a wonderful red-leafed curly hazelnut or Harry Lauder’s walking stick. It’s a variety called ‘Red Majestic’ of the European filbert (Corylus avellana). In the spring the leaves or a deep red-purple but develop a greenish tinge as the summer progresses. I have mine in a flower bed, and have been able to keep it to an 8-foot wide and 6- to 8-foot tall tree by annual pruning. Even in August it has wonderful color – all this year’s growth is a rich purple-red.
As beautiful as my Red Majestic hazelnut is, it is even better in winter against the snow. It has curled and contorted branches that stand out wonderfully against the snow. But it does not produce hazelnuts: these trees are either male or female, and both are needed to produce nuts. Mine is a male, lonely and unfulfilled. Sigh.
I have a purple smokebush (Cotinus coggygria) that I planted one in memory of a friend, Fritz Hier, who passed away in 1999. It is still small, and I often cut the branches to the ground in late winter. This stimulates it to send up long shoots with more colorful leaves than normal extensions. It does best in well-drained loam and sunny locations, but is tolerant of crummy soils.
Purple smokebush leaves in late August
Smokebush is named for the flowers, which are quite ethereal. Actually, the flowers themselves are not remarkable, but the pedicles and peduncles (stems of the flowers) develop hairs which create an open, airy mass of pink or purple haze. Because I cut mine back, I have never seen it blossom, but the leaves are wonderful.
Common ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) is a fast-growing multi-stemmed shrub that has a cultivar, ‘Diablo’ with deep purple leaves. I had two, but got rid of one because they grow so fast, and it was blocking a view I liked. They can easily send up stems 3 to 5 feet in a year. It blooms in June, so don’t prune it in the early spring or you will lose the blossoms.
Comon ninebark 'Daiblo'
Ninebark does best in full sun but will tolerate some shade and will grow in any soil – acid or alkaline, wet or dry. Do not give it any fertilizer – ever! It is so vigorous it does not need any help. I understand there is a miniature form of ‘Diablo’ called ‘Little Devil’ that only grows to 3- to 4-feet tall and wide. I haven’t tried it yet, but plan to.
Another nice reddish-leafed tree is a crabapple called ‘Prairie Fire’. It starts in the spring with prolific pinkish-red blossoms, followed by purple-maroon foliage. Later in the summer the foliage fades to a reddish green. The fruit persists into winter, bright red “berries” that are good food for birds.
Prairie Fire Crabapple
I have not grown old fashioned weigela (Weigela florida), a medium-sized early summer shrub, but I know it comes in varieties with reddish or purple-tinged leaves. ‘Wine and Roses’ is one variety; other include ‘Fine Wine’ and ‘Midnight Wine,’ both compact varieties. In general old fashioned weigela is a Zone 5 plant that can get 6 to 9 feet tall, with a spread of up to 12 feet wide.
Last but not least is a purple-leafed rose, Rosa glauca. I had one years ago, but something happened to it – I’m not sure what. It is said to be hardy to Zone 2, much colder than where I am. The single pink blossoms in June were nice, but the real attraction was the foliage which was almost a gray-purple. The orange rose hips were nice in the fall.
So if you crave purple or red leaves, visit a garden center and see what they have. Fall is a good time to plant trees and shrubs because they extend their roots then, and the climate is less hot and dry.