UACES Facebook Plant of the Week: Fall Color in Perennials

Plant of the Week: Plant of the Week: Fall Color in Perennials

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Each week since 1997, Dr. Gerald Klingaman has offered readers a unique window as he chronicles of the social history of plants.

"What always interested me was the background of the plants and how they got there and the people involved in bringing them forward," he said.

Klingaman, a retired extension horticulturist who is now operations director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, Arkansas, has created is a library of hundreds of plant histories that run in newspapers across the state and have become a favorite of gardeners in Arkansas and beyond. We hope you'll enjoy our extensive archive of his works and return each week to see what's new. 

Plant of the Week: Fall Color in Perennials

The fall color display from my easy chair inside my home has been wonderful this year. Looking out through the canopy of fully grown trees has produced a golden glow that is hard to beat. But, as I walk about the garden, I also see a glow arising from the ground. Several perennials also have significant fall color and make the space they occupy doubly valuable.

Polygonatum odoratum 'variegatum'

For any plant to have good fall color, the foliage must make it through the summer. The generally wet 2019 growing season helped keep the leaves on most of our trees and garden perennials. Then when fall does arrive, the best fall color display is produced when the weather is cool and sunny. Perennials, because many persist in the shade of trees, seldom give a good fall color display if the fall season is dark and rainy.  

An early, hard freeze will prevent most perennials from producing a good fall color display. Mostly the fall color displays of perennials such as hostas and Solomon seals begin in mid-October and last until early November. Hard freezes generally occur here in north Arkansas in late October, so most years we have opportunity for these plants to show off their fall plumage.

Fall color displays amongst perennial plants are mostly limited to shades of yellow. Why reds and oranges are omitted is probably because the plants never produce anthocyanins in the leaves, pigments responsible for the orange and red hues we see in trees.

Some of the best fall color from perennials comes from Arkansas amsonia. This Ouachita Mountain native plant has hit it big in the perennial world over the past couple decades. When you see it featured in catalogs, it is usually shown with its striking yellow fall color display, not its washed out blue flowers. Plants reach 30 inches tall and wide and color up in late September and provide effective display for three or more weeks. Some of the other species of amsonia may also produce good fall color displays, but not as reliably as Arkansas amsonia.

In my garden hostas usually provide the largest splashes of late season fall foliage color. Not all hostas make it to the end of the season with their foliage intact, so that limits the show. The blue leafed cultivars usually give some of the best fall display, but variegated forms also show good color.

Equally good in the color display are the Solomon seals. Because of their upright habit, they hold their yellow to golden foliage above other plants and can provide good background contrast.

Grasses can also give good fall color display. Here you will see maroons and reds mixed in, especially in little bluestem and Indian grass.

Planting perennials with fall color display in mind makes sense for Arkansas amsonia and grasses, both of which should be given full sunlight conditions. But, designing for fall color display for shade lovers is probably not warranted because the autumnal display is too unpredictable. Their spontaneous discovery as you shuffle through the leaves in the autumn is one of the delights of the season.

For more information about horticulture or to see other Plant of the Week columns, visit Extension’s Website,, or contact your county extension agent. The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the U of A Division of Agriculture.


About the Division of Agriculture

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system. 

The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.  

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.   

By: Gerald Klingaman, Retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - Nov. 8, 2019