In today’s post, we’re sharing another round of trees from a list of “Great Trees for Landscapes” developed by our staff. In the second installment of this four-part series, we’re keeping the momentum going with some spectacular fall color: the sourwood, black tupelo and smoketree. These trees provide beautiful flashes of color as we head into the autumn, which makes them great choices for the home landscape.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)

Mature Size:  30′ high and 20′ wide
USDA Hardiness Zone: 
4 – 9
Light Requirements: 
Full to Part Sun

As a transplant to the mountains of North Carolina, I didn’t grow up with sourwoods in my backyard. So when I first stumbled across one of these handsome trees arrayed in all its autumnal glory, I was taken aback! The tree’s brilliant scarlet coloration absolutely shines in the early autumn landscape, making it easy to spot along the forest’s edge. And if that weren’t enough, sourwoods produce racemes of nectar-rich blooms in the summer that are not only lovely, but make for some of the best honey around.

In the home landscape, sourwoods tend to top out a little shorter in stature than they would in nature — around 25 feet — with a single, straight trunk and compact crown, but you may encounter trees twice that height growing along our trails. If you want to enjoy this fantastic native tree in your own backyard, your best bet is to purchase one from a reputable nursery, as they do not transplant well from the wild. And keep in mind that, if you’re looking to encourage blooms, a sunnier site will give you the best show. These trees may be slow-growing, but planting a sourwood is an investment in fall color and fabulous flowers that is well worth the wait.

Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)

Mature Size: 30 – 50′ high and 20 – 30′ wide
USDA Hardiness Zone: 
4 – 9
Light Requirements: 
Full Sun to Part Shade

The black tupelo, or black gum as it is sometimes called, is another fantastic native tree that grows in the forest here at the Arboretum — and we’ve planted a few ourselves over the years! The autumn air works its magic on the leaves of these trees right around the same time as the sourwoods, and together, the two species form a vanguard of color to usher in the season. Each year, black tupelos transform into a stunning orange-red, but on any given tree, you’ll likely find leaves ranging in hue from yellow to purple and everything in between.

This medium-to-large shade tree is densely-branched with a broadly pyramidal habit, although it is somewhat variable in form. Its black, grape-like fruits appear in the early fall and are relished by birds and mammals alike, providing a bright spot in the garden not just for humans, but for wildlife. So if you are looking for a handsome native tree to incorporate into your home landscape, the black tupelo is a great candidate.

Smoketree (Cotinus coggygria)

Mature Size: 15′ high and wide
USDA Hardiness Zone: 
4 – 8
Light Requirements: 
Full Sun

The smoketree, or smokebush, is a large, multi-stemmed shrub or small tree known for its purple-tinged foliage which emerges a fiery red in the spring. However, its name comes not from this enticing coloration, but from its flowers, which appear in airy clusters from summer through fall, like plumes of smoke.

There are two species within the genus Cotinus that readily hybridize with one another: the native obovatus and a Eurasian species, coggygria. The latter is better represented in the trade, with varieties that have been selected for strong purple coloration and vivid bloom colors that provide a vision of fall before the season even arrives. Although its oval leaves brighten up quite a bit before being shed, it is the coloration of its new growth and panicles of flowers that makes the smoketree such a fantastic accent in the landscape as we head into fall.


If you want to see beautiful, mature sourwoods — or any of the trees featured in this post — you can find them growing across The North Carolina Arboretum! Or to see containerized specimens of all 15 “Great Trees” gathered in one spot, be sure to check out our “Great Trees for Landscapes” popup exhibit, which is located along the Grand Garden Promenade. We think there’s a spot for more of these trees in home landscapes, and we hope you’ll check back for the final installment in this series where we’ll be highlighting the remaining “Great Trees.”