Fall Colors in the Southwest

Believe it or not, fall is just around the corner. I know it doesn’t seem like it with the high temps and humidity, but it is on the way. One may envision single leaves zig zagging down in various shades of yellows, oranges, reds, and all other hues in between. Of course, we may be thinking of areas in the North East or North West where this comes naturally. Fall colors in the southwest make the desert come alive.

Here in the southwest desert achieving this spectacle may be more of a challenge. A challenge yes, but not impossible with some careful thought and planning. Here are a few trees and shrubs that can help with this scenario.

chinese pistache treeFirst there is the Chinese Pistache. Pistacia chinensis:

This one has its own fall characteristics in that the color of each tree can vary from mostly yellow to red, orange, peach and sometimes a rainbow of all these shade in one tree. If you are particular about color this tree may be best chosen during the cooler months of the year when you are actually able to view its fall splendor. Young trees are very gawky and awkward, but older trees become more symmetrical and graceful looking.

The mature height and width for the Pistache can reach up to 35 to 50 ft or more with about a 25 to 35 ft spread, depending upon how it gets pruned. They also become a bit drought tolerant with age.

Red Oaks are becoming more popular here in this area (desert southwest).

Lots on them have been planted on the East Mesa in the newly developed areas. By the way the ones that don’t look as healthy as the others probably have a dripper or emitter that is clogged. As the name implies these beauties will change anywhere from a bright to dark red show once cold weather appears. This one typically grows a bit faster than the Pistache and will grow to about the same height and width. Most oaks will benefit from a slightly acidic soil.

This can be done with iron, iron chelate, or a soil acidifier. Use one of these products if the leaves turn pale green with green veins. These deep rooted giants also become drought tolerant with age. Ash trees provide some fall color as well.

Fall Colors in the Southwest.

Raywood Ash Fall

The Raywood ash with deep green summer foliage gives way to a burgundy flush that resembles a purple leaf plum in autumn.

Fall colors in the southwest
Yellow colored Ash tree in the park at autumn time

The Modesto, Bonita, and Berrinda ash will reveal a brilliant yellow-gold hue (see above). These trees also are low water consumers once established and can take our alkaline soils. Many of these specimens can be seen in our city sports parks thru out Las Cruces. These drier climate trees typically grow anywhere from 25 to 50 feet tall and 20 to 35 feet wide.

The Crape myrtle which can be in tree or shrub form also produces a spectacular show of brilliant red orange leaves.

Fall Colors in the Southwest


These can range in size from the dwarf, which reaches 2 to 3 foot tall to trees that can reach 15 to 20 foot in height and almost the same width. This tree or shrub will benefit from regular watering and fertilizing with a supplement of iron.

Nandina Plant in Pot

Heavenly Bamboo is slow growing plant but requires low water once established.  It is not only tolerant of drought but looks rather decorative in any garden.  Plus it will turn a showy reddish color during the winter seasons. Other varieties are the Gulf Stream, Sienna Sunrise, and Firepower.  Can be used in the background with shorter flowering perennials in front.

Fall colors in the southwest
Photo credit – Millette Garden Media

Emerald Gaiety – This China native offers a double whammy with flower color from late spring to early summer and sometimes into fall. There are some evergreen shrubs such as euonymus ’alatus’, ‘emerald gaiety’, ‘emerald n gold’, and nandina, which all flush in colors ranging from purple to red hues from late fall and thro ought the winter months. These can have a dramatic effect during our brief snow storms.

Okay, maybe not snow storms, rather, when it snows. All the trees and plants listed will benefit from a regular fertilizer program which includes some type of iron. As a rule, the greener the foliage is during the growing season the more color it will produce in the fall and early winter months.

One side note is that sometimes this area seems to go from abnormally hot fall temperatures to very cold temps in a matter of days. This event may sometimes lead to quick “freeze dried” leaves, which may diminish most or all of the fall colors a leaf can provide. Add some fall and winter interest with any one or any combination of the above.

These are tried and true plants for our southwestern soils and dry climate remove the seed pods after the blossoms fade, then the fall color emerges from the green leaves when there is a chill in the air.

By Gary Guzman

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Gary Guzman Owner of Color Your World and Guzman’s Greenhouse in Las Cruces.

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