Best Trees for Autumn Colour in Wellington

Liquidamber styraciflua

I’ve just spent the autumn searching Wellington for trees with good autumn colour, and have compiled a shortlist that should cheer up anyone who thinks that we only have year-round green as our backdrop. We’re never going to match Queenstown for picture postcard autumn displays, but you can definitely get a touch of gold, red, and orange into your garden between April and June. All of the photos in this post were taken around Wellington. As I took them, I really appreciated how the low sun at this time of year gives wonderful back-lighting to the foliage, bringing out the colours.

1. Maples

Maples (the Acer family) are one of the best small garden trees you can grow here. There is a huge range in the growth habit (upright, spreading, weeping), height, and foliage colours available. A favourite of mine is Acer palmatum ‘Senkaki’, shown below, which having dropped the last of its golden autumn leaves is now stunning with its bare red stems revealed in full. Other cultivars will turn orange and fiery red. Just make sure that you give a maple some shelter from the wind and from hot afternoon sun. Both will damage the fine foliage.

Acer palmatum ‘Senkaki’

2. Gingko.

The Gingko tree (Gingko biloba) is another beauty. The specimen below is in the Wellington Botanic Garden and the fan-shaped leaves are still holding this wonderful golden colour in late June, just past the winter solstice. The summer leaves are a fresh green. Although slow-growing, this tree will be large. Look for  Gingko ‘Jade Butterflies’ which is a miniature version that is said to reach about 3.5 metres in height. Plant in a sunny position.



Look how the leaf veins radiate out from the base, rather than from a central midrib. The gingko leaf has been found in fossils dating back 270 million years.The gingko is a living fossil and any other trees related to it are long extinct.

3. Cherries


Ornamental cherries ( Prunus ) are dotted all over Wellington, not least because some self-seed readily and have got into the margins of the native bush, where they betray their presence with fiery autumn tones. You can expect good, late autumn colour from  many of the Prunus species, plus of course the spring blossom. Look at Prunus ‘Shirotae’, also known as ‘Mount Fuji’ which seems to tolerate the wind quite well. Plant in full sun.

Weeping ornamental cherry in autumn

4. Liquidamber.

IMG_2283 (2)
Liquidamber styraciflua

On a grey day, doesn’t this liquidamber (also known as American Sweet Gum) stand out against the native bush behind! This is an outstanding tree for long-lasting and vivid autumn colour. It won’t get too large here – 15 year height is approximately 8m.

People often think that to get proper screening you need a high, evergreen hedge or shrub border. Deciduous trees can be very useful instead – providing screening and shade in summer and allowing filtered sunlight through in the winter. There is the bonus of the seasonal changes bringing life to your garden. And who amongst us hasn’t enjoyed kicking their way through piles of autumn leaves! Although some of the trees shown here are quite large, don’t forget that if you go for maples there are many that will stay as small as one-two metres high and grow in a container.

Finally, a shout-out to the trees that nearly made this not-at-all comprehensive list. Birch trees, ( Betula species) , example shown below.










Golden elm ( Ulmus procera ‘Louis Van Houtte’ – you need plenty of room for this one but it’s a good hardy tree for exposed sites.

Golden elm








Cercis candensis ‘Forest Pansy’, the claret ash Fraxinus oxycarpa ‘Raywoodii’, and the magnificent copper beech Fagus sylvatica purpurea all deserve a mention. And if you really, really can’t plant a tree, perhaps you have a brick wall or garage that needs covering. Here is the Boston ivy Parthenocissus tricuspidata doing its thing:

Boston ivy




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