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Typical Autumn Coloration of Select Trees in Ky

by Dean Henson, Kentucky Department of Parks

Red Maple

(Acer rubrum)

Natural History: The tree is celebrated for its brilliant red hues in choice years when autumn coloration reaches full potential.  The tree proves finicky with regard to reliably displaying the magnificent color that it is capable of producing.
Leaves: 4-5 inches long with 3-5 lobes and toothed margins. 
Fall Color: Orange-Red, Scarlet Red

Sugar Maple

(Acer saccharum)

Natural History: Attains heights greater than 90 feet and can be spectacular in fall with brilliant yellow or orange leaves. The tree is capable of producing striking color combinations and is abundant in most regions of Kentucky. 
Leaves: 3-5 inches long with 5 lobes and smooth leaf margins.
Fall Color: Yellow, Orange, Red


(Liquidamber styraciflua)

Natural History: An attractive aromatic tree, it has a straight trunk and conical crown that grows to 100 feet.  It’s penchant for annually displaying rich, wine-colored leaves make it especially pleasing to view in autumn.
Leaves: 5-7 inches long and star-shaped with finely saw lobes and 5 main veins.
Fall Color: Yellow, Orange, Red, Purple

Black Gum

(Nyssa sylvatica)

Natural History: Usually a medium-sized tree of 60-70 feet, it has a flat-topped crown.  The tree is noteworthy for its filigree of winter branches, but it achieves its greatest glory when in full autumn coloration.
Leaves: 2-5 inches long and abruptly pointed, and growing wider toward the tip.
Fall Color: Orange, Red, Purple

Pignut Hickory

(Carya glabra)

Natural History: Pignut is the most common of several hickory species occurring in Kentucky.  Hickories are slow growers most notable for their reliable tendency to turn a shimmering gold every fall, regardless of seasonal weather variables.
Leaves: Each is 3-6 inches and finely toothed; alternate and pinnately compound on a stem that is 6-10 inches long.
Fall Color: Yellow, Yellow-Gold

Tulip Poplar

(Liriodendron tulipifera)

Natural History: Easily Kentucky’s tallest hardwood tree, it is capable of reaching 200 feet.  Occurring in every county of the state, it is among the first trees to show color in late summer, signaling the approach of autumn.
Leaves: 5-7 inches, alternate, long, wide, broad-tipped and nearly square.
Fall Color: Yellow


(Oxydendrum arboretum)

Natural History: This tree offers some of the most satisfying fall color in the south, perhaps the best deep red of any of the natives.  Its midsummer sprays of flowers turn woody and golden yellow in the fall, further enhancing the brilliance of its autumn display.
Leaves: 3-8 inches, alternate arranged and simple.
Fall Color: Crimson Red

Black Walnut

(Juglans nigra)

Natural History: Among the most coveted of hardwoods, pioneers considered it among the indicators of good land. The nuts are flavorful and delicious but must be gathered early before squirrels and other wildlife can consume them.  Black walnut is a favored host for mistletoe.
Leaves: 3-5 inches, alternate and pinnately compound on a 12 to 24-inch stem.
Fall Color: Yellow, Yellow-Brown

Scarlet Oak

(Quercus coccinea)

Natural History: The tree is appropriately named for its extraordinary leaf color in early spring and in autumn.  As the last tree to turn in fall, it terminates its leaves with what is typically the last grand splash of color to be observed in the autumn woods.  
Leaves: 3-6 inches with 7 sharply pointed, coarsely-toothed lobes.
Fall Color: Scarlet Red

White Oak

(Qurcus alba)

Natural History: Easily the most majestic of the grand oaks, its unfurling leaves in the spring are rose-colored before turning a medium green.  The mighty white oak also has fine fall color and its leave persist well into winter.
Leaves: 4-9 inches with 5-9 rounded lobes.
Fall Color: Yellow, Yellow-Brown, Red, Red-Brown

Chestnut Oak

(Quercus prinus)

Natural History: A stately giant that is dominant in upland oak forests.  It can survive on steep, rocky sites where other oaks cannot.  The large, oblong acorns are a staple food for wildlife in fall and early winter.  
Leaves: 4-8 inches, alternate with 10-16 rounded teeth on each side.
Fall Color: Yellow, Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Brown


(Fagus grandifolia)

Natural History: This distinctly elegant forest tree has smooth bark and a graceful, spreading form.  An important wildlife tree, it is prone to forming cavities that serve as critical den and nest sites for both birds and mammals. Beechnuts are readily consumed by squirrels, deer, turkey, and black bear.
Leaves: 3-5 inches in length, coarsely saw-toothed margins, and a long-pointed leaf tip.
Fall Color: Copper, Gold-Bronze


(Cornus florida)

Natural History: A small tree up to 30 feet in height, it boasts horizontally spreading branches that arc upward at the ends.  Given its lovely flowers in spring and its crimson foliage in fall, it is attractive most of the year.
Leaves: 2-5 inches and arranged opposite with smooth margins and parallel veins.
Fall Color: Red, Burgundy, Purple


(Sassafras albidum)

Natural History: Usually a small tree, but can grow up to 75 feet.  Unusual in that more than one leaf shape occurs on the tree.  Explorers and colonists thought the aromatic root bark was a panacea for various diseases.
Leaves: 4-6 inches long with single, 2-lobed, and 3-lobed varieties.
Fall Color: Yellow, Orange, Pink, Red

Winged Sumac

(Rhus copallina)

Natural History: Though not a tree-sized participant, the annual contribution of this small shrub to the overall fall color display is not to be overlooked.  Roadsides across much of Kentucky are flanked with fortunate groupings of these autumn sparklers, providing a swath of bright red color where there might otherwise be none.
Leaves: 1-3 inches long with 7-17 leaflets on an alternate, pinnately compound 12-inch stem.
Fall Color: Red, Maroon, Purple