Fall colors along the Eastern Sierras in California. Photo by Josh Endres.
In Vermont, fall color trees are a no-brainer, but elsewhere in America these same species may not be nearly as bright, and some trees show little color at all. This unpredictability is related to your local climate and each tree's unique genetic makeup. Do not assume every individual of a species will bear the same intensity of color. All too often a tree that's supposed to turn fiery red may yield only muddy colored leaves.
For those in the south and west where conditions are warmer, even the brightest species in the north may be dismal. The only way to know for sure is to visit the local tree farm in the fall and tag the best performers for your project. This is how landscape architects ensure their visions manifest perfectly in the finished garden.
The southeastern native sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, shows considerable variation in color in this alee planting (above). This occurs often with seed grown trees which are all unique individuals. However, growers wanted more reliable color too so they selected the most vivid colored trees and cloned them to sell under a varietal name. With Liquidambar, one example is 'Festival' which bears a reliably spectacular rainbow of hues on the same tree. For deep reds, 'Burgundy' is the most desirable. While you can rely on varieties with this tree, most others without varietal designations are best purchased when they're all dressed up for cooler weather, so your autumn bright spot won't end up a dud in your yard.
Photo provided by Garden Design reader Lana Hovinga in Kitchener, Ontario.