Trees for Fall Color in California for the CSE for Landscape Architects

Plant Oscars: Episode 2

Trees for Fall Color in California

Fall Color in California? Absolutely!

Although much of California has a mild Mediterranean climate, several trees illuminate autumn with their splendid fall color. Fortunately, you can choose from trees that call California their home or from selections from other parts of the world. Many choices await the adventuresome landscape architect.

For landscape architect candidates preparing for the California Supplemental Exam, you may want to know about these trees that provide fall foliage color in the state.

Consider specifying one of the following trees for fall color on your next planting design.

California Native Trees With Fall Color

Since the California Supplemental Exam for landscape architects has several questions on plants and planting design, with a bias towards California natives, we will look at native trees with fall color first.

California Sycamore (Platanus racemosa)

The stately, irregular trunks are their most notable feature. But, their fall color adds another attractive element to the autumnal landscape. The large lobed leaves turn yellow and fade to brown before falling in inland areas. Near the coast, the fall color is less spectacular but still worthwhile. California sycamore is native to streams and washes in the foothills and mountains. Easy to grow. Sunset Climate Zones 4-24.

California Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii)

If shades of yellow, red and orange are your idea of autumn color, California black oak will not disappoint you. The traditionally-shaped lobed leaves regularly give one of the state’s best displays of fall color. Native to the Sierra Nevada foothills, California black oak adapts to all but the warmest areas along the coast. Sunset Climate Zones 5-9, 14-21.

Exotic Trees With Autumn Color

Along with a few choice native species, there are several exotic choices that can color up the landscape with brilliant fall color.

American Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

The American sweet gum is probably the best fall color tree for most areas of California. The star-shaped leaves turn blazing lay bright colors or red, yellow, orange, or burgundy every fall (even in warm coastal areas). Several named varieties are available in the trade that turn a specific color in the fall. Sunset Climate Zones 3-9, 14-37, 39

Named varieties include:

  • ‘Burgundy’ – Red to purple fall color
  • ‘Rotundiloba’  – Does not produce ball-shaded fruits like other varieties
  • ‘Palo Alto’ – Colorful red fall color
  • ‘Festival’  – Red, pink, and yellow fall color

Chinese Pistache (Pistacia chinensis)

How can you go wrong with a tree that provides cooling summer shade, brilliant red fall color, and low water-use? Chinese pistache has some of the best fall color in the West. The pinnately-compound leaves turn bright red before shedding. Chinese pistache still colors up in Southern California, but it also endures desert heat and cold northern California winters. Sunset Climate Zones 4-16, 18-23, 26, 28-33.

European White Birch (Betula pendula)

European white birch is an attractive, dainty tree that is famous for its weeping habit and beautiful white trunk. Many landscape architects underestimate his birch’s potential to add fall color to the landscape. The small leaves turn golden-yellow to yellow-brown in the fall. If European white birch did not use so much water, it would be the perfect four-season tree. Sunset Climate Zones 1-12, 14-24, 35-45.

Maidenhair Tree (Gingko biloba)

Gold is what maidenhair tree is in autumn. The triangular-shaped leaves turn golden-yellow and cling to the plant deep into fall. Then, one day when you least expect it, nearly all the leaves drop in the course of only a few hours. Ginkgo is an ancient tree that dates back to the time of the dinosaurs. Plant only males cultivars since female trees produce smelly fruits. Sunset Climate Zones A3, 1-10, 12, 14-24, 26, 28-44.

Male cultivars include ‘Saratoga’ and ‘Autumn Gold’ are common choices for the landscape.

 Fall Color For California Can Be Achieved

Fall foliage is not just something for the eastern United States. By carefully selecting the right trees, landscape architects can create an inspiring autumnal landscape.

Trees and the California Supplemental Exam for Landscape Architects

The California Supplemental Exam for landscape architects asks lots of questions about selecting appropriate plants and planting design. Know which trees can be used for fall foliage color and their water use requirements for the CSE.

Pass the California Supplemental Exam (CSE) for Landscape Architects e-book study guideIf you are looking for a study guide to help you prepare to pass the CSE the first time, check out Pass the California Supplemental Exam for Landscape Architects study guide e-book.


John is a landscape architect who is currently preparing to take the California Supplemental Exam to become licensed in California. He is currently a licensed professional landscape architect in Georgia and Florida. John graduated from California State University, Pomona with a BSLA degree in landscape architecture in 1997 and has extensive practice experience in residential and commercial landscape design.

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