Small Native Shrubs with Big Fall Color

Small Native Shrubs with Big Fall Color Featured Image
A compact cranberry viburnum glows like embers in an autumn landscape.

Some of the most brilliant fall shrubs come in small packages and have the added benefit of being native. This sets them apart from the many non-native, ecological troublemakers sold in most garden centers, which are seasonally beautiful but noxiously invasive. Landscape favorites like dwarf Burning bush (Euonymus alatus) and Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), are among the worst weedy offenders.

But, with so many small, tidy, vibrant North American options, there’s no need to grow weeds. Our favorite “Small” native shrubs grow no more than 4-feet high, with a comparable spread. All fit well in small-space gardens, along low borders, or in large containers. Many are cultivated varieties selected for their size and beauty, and each is adaptable and easy care.

Small Native Shrubs for Fall

When planting with fall in mind, choose from these standout beauties that nurture the environment. Many also have winter attractive berries that feed songbirds and other wildlife in the cold months.

Dwarf Black Chokeberry

Low Scape Mound™ leaves
The fall leaves of Low Scape Mound™ turn shades of crimson and orange. (Photo care of Proven Winners®)

Proven Winner’s Low Scape Mound™ black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa Low Scape Mound™, 1-2 feet, full to partial sun, Zones 3-9, eastern North America) is a truly small shrub that starts the season with medium-green leaves and clusters of pinkish-white May flowers that attract bees. Clusters of purple-black berries feed birds in summer, and bright crimson and orange leaves light up the fall landscape. These shrubs are best planted along border edges or in large pots. They will also tolerate moist soil conditions.

Bush Honeysuckle

Honeysuckle flowers
The summer flowers of bush honeysuckle are followed by yellow and red fall foliage. (Image by Rob Routledge, Sault College)

Don’t underestimate bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera, 3 feet, full to partial sun, Zones 3-7, eastern North America). The yellow and/or orange-red summer flowers of this underplanted native shrub are a favorite of bumblebees, and it’s crisp green foliage turns from yellow to red in fall. It will withstand partial sun and dry, rocky soils, though its fall leaf color is prettiest when specimens are planted in full sun.

Dwarf Fothergilla

Dwarf fothergilla leaves
The leaves of dwarf fothergilla turn brilliant orange, red, and gold in fall.

There are many wonderful cultivated varieties of dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii, 2-4 feet, full sun to partial shade, Zones 5-8, southeastern United States) available. One of the best is ‘Blue Mist’, which grows to 3 feet and bears ivory bottlebrush blooms in early spring followed by blue-green summer foliage. In fall, the leaves turn riotous shades of orange, gold, and red.

Dwarf Oakleaf Hydrangea

Oakleaf hydrangeas
All oakleaf hydrangeas turn pleasing shades of red and mahogany in fall.

Standard oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, full to partial sun, Zones 5-9, southeastern United States) are very large shrubs but lots of superb dwarf varieties have been bred.  The 3- to 4-foot ‘Ruby Slippers’ bears lots of large, rosy flower panicles in late spring, and its green oak-shaped leaves turn, mahogany red in fall. Another colorful beauty is the gold-leaved ‘Little Honey’, which grows to 3-4 feet, bears white flower panicles in summer, and has deep red fall leaves.

Dwarf Virginia Sweetspire

Itea virginica Scentlandia® leaves
Itea virginica Scentlandia® turns shades of deep purple and glowing red with hints if orange and gold. (Image care of Proven Winners®)

Named for its drooping spires of fragrant, early summer flowers, Scentlandia® Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica Scentlandia®, 2-3 feet, full sun to partial shade, Zones 5-9, southeastern United States) has the added bonus of spectacular fall foliage. A single plant may have a mix of purple, red, orange, and gold fall leaves at once. The soil-adaptable shrubs grow well in average to boggy ground.

Compact Fragrant Sumac

Fragrant sumac leaves
Fragrant sumac has colorful fall leaves of purple, red, orange and gold. (Image by Jessie Keith)

If you need a tough shrub with great fall looks, try compact fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro Low’, 2-3 feet, full to partial sun, Zones 3-9, mid-western and eastern North America). This low, spreading shrub grows well in rugged, dry roadside plantings as well as home landscapes, and its three-parted leaves turn hot hues in fall.

Dwarf Witherod Viburnum

Lil' Ditty flowers and red fall foliage (inset)
Lil’ Ditty witherod viburnum looks great in spring and has reliable red fall foliage (inset). (Image thanks to Proven Winners)

Proven Winner’s Lil’ Ditty witherod viburnum (Viburnum cassinoides Lil’ Ditty®, 1-2 feet, full sun to partial shade, Zones 3-8, eastern North America) is truly a tuffet of a miniature shrub. From late spring to midsummer it bears rounded clusters of white flowers with a mild honey-like fragrance, which bees like. In fall, its glossy leaves turn various shades of red, from the leaf edges inward.

Compact Cranberry Viburnum

Dwarf cranberry viburnum fall fruit
The fall fruits of dwarf cranberry viburnum are brilliant red and feed wildlife.

In fall, the brilliant red fruits of the American cranberry viburnum (Viburnum opulus var. americanum, full sun to partial shade, Zones 2-7, northern North America) glisten among its bright red and gold leaves. There are several compact varieties of this super hardy shrub from which to choose. The smallest is the soon-to-be-released ‘Jewell’ or ‘Jewell Box‘, which reaches a maximum of 2 feet and has reliable burgundy red fall color. The larger ‘Compactum’ grows to a height of 4-6 feet and bears copious red fruits that remain into winter until they are consumed by birds.

Planting Shrubs in Fall

Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend pack

Thankfully all of the shrubs on this list are quite hardy, making them good candidates for fall planting. Before planting any shrub, be sure you have a smart planting plan and consider your plant’s needs with respect to light, soil, and elevation.
When planting a shrub, dig a hole that’s roughly twice the diameter of its root ball. Dig the hole deep enough so the top of the root ball is level with the surrounding soil. Before planting, gently loosen your shrub’s roots if they are densely intertwined (root bound). Then enrich the excavated soil with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. When planting, pack the soil around the root ball to remove any air pockets and cover all roots. Finally, lightly mulch around the shrub and water it well.
If fall weather remains dry, continue to provide supplementary water to encourage good establishment. Come spring, your new shrubs should shine through the season!