As days become shorter and cool temperatures move in, garden plants begin to shut down for the winter and flowers are scarce. A good way to prolong garden color is to plant shrubs with leaves that change color before they fall. Shrubs with red leaves not only brighten the landscape but can be used in floral arrangements, wreaths and craft projects. Red-leaved shrubs are easier to find in cold-winter climates than in mild-winter climates.
1. Shrubs with Berries
Some shrubs provide fall and winter berries for additional value. Dwarf purpleleaf Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii f. atropurpurea "Concorde") gives interest in every season. This small 2-feet-high, 3-feet-wide shrub has deep red-burgundy foliage from spring through summer that changes to crimson in the fall, accompanied by red oval berries. Growing in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 8, this plant does best in full sun. "Brilliantissima" chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia "Brilliantissima") grows 6 to 8 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide in USDA zones 4 through 9. This selection has deeper red leaves and more compact growth than the species. Clusters of glossy red berries ripen in late summer and hold well into winter.
2. Native Plants
Found throughout eastern North America, staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is hard to beat for dramatic red color. The cultivar laceleaf staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina "Laciniata") has fern-like foliage and grows quickly to 10 or 12 feet tall. Hardy in USDA zones 4 through 8, the interesting branching form revealed after leaf fall gives additional garden value. Southern arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) is probably the best arrowwood for red fall color. Native to the Midwest in USDA zones 3 through 8, shrubs grow 10 to 12 feet tall and 5 to 6 feet wide. White spring flowers produce bluish-purple summer fruits that attract birds.
3. Showy Flowers
Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) produces a showy display of long, fragrant, white flower clusters in early summer. Normally 5 to 6 feet tall and wide, the variety "Little Henry" (Itea virginica "Sprich") is suited to smaller spaces at 2 to 3 feet tall and wide. This variety has garnet-red fall foliage and grows in USDA zones 5 through 9. Typically growing 4 to 6 feet tall, oak-leaf hydrangea has large, deeply lobed leaves that turn deep red in fall. The conical clusters of 4- to 12-inch-long white flowers appear in late spring to summer and gradually turn pinkish purple. Use the flowers in fresh arrangements or dry them for long-term use. Oakleaf hydrangea grows in USDA zones 5 through 9.
4. Mild-Winter Climate Shrubs
In some areas of the U.S., heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) has invasive qualities due to its ability to seed in and to reproduce from root fragments. However, it gives reliable red fall color even in mild winter areas. The variety "Firepower" is a non-invasive cultivar that reaches 24 to 60 inches tall and 24 inches wide in USDA zones 6 through 10. The outer leaves turn brilliant red in fall. Native to the West, skunkbush (Rhus trilobata) grows 3 to 6 feet tall and wide, with male and female bushes. Female bushes produce red berries in fall before the leaves turn color. Red can mingle with some orange and yellow tones. Hardy to USDA zones 5 through 10, skunkbush is tolerant to heat and drought.