A variety of fall colors of trees in North Carolina, with a road winding through the trees

Summer often means hot temperatures and humidity, and spring can’t make up its mind if it still wants to be winter or not, but fall makes itself known by the bright foliage that brings new life to the greater Winston-Salem area. It can prompt detours when driving just to see different leaf colors or encourage us to go on hikes to gaze at the many hues of autumn.

If you’d like to add a pop of fall color to your property but aren’t sure where to start, we’ve picked some of the best trees to plant this fall. All grow well in the Triad area of North Carolina and we’ve covered a variety of sizes and colors.

If five options aren’t enough, the North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox has a list of 356 different trees that are known for their fall color. The options are endless, but be sure to pick the right tree for the right place. Know how much room you have for the tree to grow, what kind of light the proposed planting area gets (full sun? partial shade?), and research if the tree you choose has quirks such as thorns, far-reaching roots, or messy seeds.

If you’re not sure what to look for when choosing a tree, read this post: How to Choose the Best Tree to Plant This Fall

Looking up at yellow leaves on a chestnut oak in fall

Chestnut Oak in Fall. Photo by David J. Stang – source: David Stang. First published at ZipcodeZoo.com, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Chestnut Oak

Quercus montana (formerly Quercus prinus)

With yellow to orange fall colors, this native tree has leaves similar to a chestnut tree. It is a slow growing tree, so it will take time to reach its full height of 60 to 90 feet.

Like most oak trees, it produces acorns in late summer to fall. These are a valuable food source for our local wildlife but can be a nuisance when scattered across your patio (don’t walk outside barefoot!) or dropping on your car or skylights.

The chestnut oak is often identified by its thick gray/brown bark with deep ridges. It’s drought tolerant once established and works well as a large shade tree where it has plenty of room to grow.

Black tupelo leaves in fall. By Jean-Pol GRANDMONT – travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Black Tupelo

Nyssa sylvatica

Also known as black gum or sour gum, this tree boasts bright red leaves in fall. Along with the red leaves, it produces fruit in the fall that birds love. And if you’ve ever eaten tupelo honey, it’s made from the nectar of the black tupelo’s spring flowers.

Deer also love to eat black tupelo seedlings, so they can be difficult to grow if the local deer population is a problem (here are some ways you can keep deer away). However, once the trees have grown, deer avoid black tupelos.

It is often planted as a medium-sized ornamental tree, growing 50 to 70 feet tall.

It grows best in well-drained soil so avoid planting it in clay or swampy areas.

Check out the cultivars called ‘Wildfire’ or ‘Red Rage’ for some especially bright red fall foliage.

Close up a hawthorn tree's yellow leaves and red berries in the fallHawthorn

Crataegus spp.

A much smaller tree (15-25 feet tall) than the others on this list, the hawthorn is actually part of the rose family. As part of the rose family, the branches and trunk have long thorns, so keep that in mind if you plan to plant it near a door or sidewalk.

In the fall, the leaves turn red or orange, depending on the type of hawthorn. There are over 1,100 kinds of hawthorn trees in the United States, so you have many kinds to choose from! Just be sure it will grow well in our climate, with your soil, and in the space that you plan for it.

You can check out varieties of hawthorn trees that grow in North Carolina at the North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. One such tree is the Cockspur hawthorn, native to North Carolina. It grows to 20-30 feet, has white flowers and small fruit in spring and bright red foliage in the fall. Look for the cultivar ‘Cruzam’ if you’d prefer a thornless variety.

close up of red maple leaves in fallRed Maple

Acer rubrum

Nothing says fall has arrived quite like the bright autumn colors of a red maple, whose foliage can range from red to orange. But, despite its beautiful fall colors, the name actually comes from the red flowers that bloom in early spring.

Growing 40 to 60 feet tall, the red maple does best in sun to partial shade. It works well as a deciduous shade tree and is one of the more drought-tolerant maples in the Winston-Salem area. You can find red maples throughout the eastern states; in fact, the U.S. Forest Service says that it is the “most abundant native tree in eastern North America.”

Be cautious where you plant a red maple, as its roots can disrupt sidewalks, driveways, and other areas.

For some of the most vibrant red foliage, check out the cultivars ‘Red Sunset’ or ‘October Glory.’

Boxelder leaves in fall.
By Димитър Найденов / Dimìtar Nàydenov – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Boxelder

Acer negundo

Also part of the maple family, the boxelder tree, sometimes called ash-leaved maple, has striking yellow leaves in the fall. The main difference from maple trees is that the boxelder has compound leaves (containing 3 to 7 “leaflets”), while maples have the classic 5-pointed leaf shape found on the Canadian flag.

The boxelder tree grows quickly to 30 to 50 feet tall and therefore doesn’t live as long as some of the slower-growing trees. Because it grows so quickly, the wood is weaker than slow-growing trees, so keep that in mind if your property frequently gets storms or heavy snowfall.

Boxelder trees produce many seeds; while these are a valuable source of food for wildlife, they’re a potential mess near pools, decks, and walkways. If falling seeds are a concern, try to plant a male tree as they are less messy.

Look for the cultivar called ‘Kelly’s Gold’ for golden yellow fall foliage. ‘Variegatum’ has leaves with white along the edges. There’s even a cultivar called ‘Flamingo’ that has pink and white variegation on the leaves that shows up in spring.

Get Planting!

Fall is an ideal time to plant new trees on your property. We hope that this list has inspired you to enjoy the trees around you and motivated you to add more to your own property – if you have the space for them, that is.

Are you more interested in spring-flowering trees than those with fall foliage? Check out the Best Spring-Flowering Trees in the Triad Area.

Finally, you can also peruse the full list of recommended trees for the Winston-Salem area for trees best suited for our specific climate and soil.

Happy planting!