Best Native Trees for Fall Foliage

Creative Commons image by Jim Fowler, , https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

Plant Now for Beautiful Fall Foliage

Looking for trees that can handle our harsh environment while providing spectacular fall foliage?

Now’s a great time to plant any of the following cold-hardy trees, for summer shade, year-round interest and lots of fall color!

Quaking Aspen

You’ve seen them and loved them in national forests throughout the Rockies. In fact, the quaking aspen is the most widely distributed tree in North America, being found from Canada to central Mexico.

Because of its white bark, this tall, somewhat pyramidal tree is sometimes mistaken for birch. The aspen’s heart-shaped leaves are dark green on top, with a light green underside. But in the fall they turn an incredibly clear yellow color. (Although native stands can sometimes exhibit orange and even pockets of red.)

One of the most endearing features of the quaking aspen is the soft, rain-like sound make by its leaves fluttering back and forth in the breeze. It’s inspired many a poet.

These trees require full sun, but are highly tolerant of soil types. Preferring altitudes of at least 5,000 feet, they’re perfect for the Jackson area, 


“From the upper branches of the cottonwood trees overhead — whose shimmering, tremulous leaves are hardly ever quiet, but if the wind stirs at all, rustle and quiver and sigh all day long.”

Theodore Roosevelt, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail

Our 26th president penned those words in 1896 to describe the distinctive sound of wind rustling through the cottonwood leaves. It’s said to mimic the sound of the seashore. Take a listen:

Of course, the cottonwood is our state tree, and there are several species native to this region. But the most popular is probably the plains cottonwood.

This fast-growing cottonwood is resilient to temperature extremes, offers wide-spreading summertime shade, and turns a nice golden-yellow in the fall.

The hardy plains cottonwood thrives in Zone 4 and to elevations of 7,000 feet. It’s the largest broadleaf tree in the state, and it was the only significant tree to the early Native American inhabitants. Though often considered to be “short-lived,” plains cottonwood trees have been known to reach an age well over one hundred years.

If you dread the mess left by the tree’s cottony seeds, you can opt for a “cottonless” cottonwood (which is actually the male plant). These trees are drought-resistant and grow to 80 feet when mature and, like their cottony cousins, their fall foliage is golden yellow.

During the winter, it’s important to keep newly planted trees moist, if at all possible. According to the University of Wyoming Extension Service:

“Trees will survive Wyoming winters much better if their root systems are kept moist during the cold months. If the ground is frozen, do not water because it cannot penetrate the soil; however, if the area is dry and there is no snow cover, it would be beneficial to get out the hose.”

What About the Maples?

There are actually several variety of maple trees that thrive in our area. But if you’re looking for a bright spot of red this fall, you can’t go wrong with the ornamental amur maple.

This tree is particularly well suited for smaller landscapes, as its mature height is only about 20 feet.

Cold hardy to Zone 2, this low-maintenance maple is fast growing. It’s leaves turn brilliant orange to fiery red in the in the fall. The amur maple can tolerate a wide variety of soils, and is moderately drought tolerant.

If your soil is extremely dry, the tatarian maple is even more drought-resistant.

Like the amurs, these trees are also considered ornamentals, growing to only about 20 feet tall. In the summer they produce eye-catching, red, winged fruit (called samaras). Then their green leaves turn spectacular yellow and red in the fall, making them an ideal addition to a small landscape. 

These little maples tolerate various soil conditions and partial shade. (They’re also a good investment– tatarian maples can live 150 years.)

As you may have guessed, the Rocky Mountain maple is also an excellent choice. About 10 feet taller than the amur or tatarian when fully mature, the Rocky Mountain maple thrives at higher elevations (up to 8,500 feet).

In the summer, this maple produces shiny, dark green leaves with  paler or whitish undersides. Its fall foliage ranges from yellow to yellowish-orange to crimson. The tree is highly tolerant of sandy, gravelly and rocky soil.

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Gambel Oak

There are really only two species of oak that thrive in our neck of the woods: Bur oak and gamble oak. Of these, the gambel oak provides the more attractive fall color.

Also known as the Rocky Mountain white oak and scrub oak, the gambel oak is cold hardy to Zone 3 and to elevations of 8,000 feet. These trees turn orange and yellow in the fall, creating mountainsides of vivid colors. Tree height varies significantly from one location to another, but the average height at full maturity is 15 to 30 feet.

If your landscape is a wildlife habitat, you’ll want to include the gambel oak. Its small, sweet acorns are eaten by large and small mammals and birds, and its foliage is attractive to both deer and elk. 


Bob Vila

Nebraska Forest Service

Arbor Day Foundation

University of Wyoming Extension Service

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