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What kind of tree turns red in the fall?

Many trees change color in the fall, but only some turn vivid shades of red. The most common red-leafed trees are maples, sumac, sweetgum, and dogwood. The brilliant red colors are produced by pigments called anthocyanins that are revealed when the green chlorophyll in leaves breaks down as autumn approaches.

Maple Trees

Maple trees are famous for their fiery fall colors. The most popular types planted in home landscapes are:

  • Red maple – Brilliant crimson leaves
  • Sugar maple – Vibrant orange-red foliage
  • Japanese maple – Delicate red leaves

Maples turn red in fall when glucose gets trapped inside their leaves. Sunlight and cool nights trigger the production of anthocyanin pigments, which turn the trapped glucose bright red. The warmer and more sunny the days are followed by cool nights, the more vivid the color display.


Sumac is a large shrub or small tree that produces dense clusters of tiny green flowers that turn into fuzzy red berries. Its leaves blaze red in autumn. The most popular types are:

Type Description
Staghorn sumac Large shrub with velvety branches and dramatic crimson foliage
Smooth sumac Shrub with greenish-red twigs and bright red fall leaves
Fragrant sumac Low shrub with fuzzy branches and leaves that turn brilliant scarlet

The leaves of sumac bushes and trees turn red in fall when sugars become concentrated in their leaves. These sugars react with sunlight to produce anthocyanins.


Sweetgum is a common large deciduous tree that grows 40-75 feet tall. It’s identifiable by its unique star-shaped leaves. In autumn, they change from green to rich shades of red, purple, orange, and yellow.

The red pigments in sweetgum leaves are anthocyanins. They are manufactured from sugars in the leaves as chlorophyll breaks down. The best fall color occurs after dry, sunny days and cool nights.


Dogwood trees and shrubs produce flowers in spring and scarlet-red leaves in the fall. Popular types include:

  • Flowering dogwood – Tree with red-tinted leaves
  • Kousa dogwood – Tree with purple-red fall foliage
  • Red twig dogwood – Shrub with dark red leaves
  • Silver-leaf dogwood – Shrub with maroon-red foliage

The trigger for dogwoods to turn red in autumn is the decreasing daylight hours and lower night temperatures. These conditions initiate the production of anthocyanin pigments.

Other Red-Leafed Trees

In addition to maples, sumacs, sweetgums, and dogwoods, several other trees put on a red fall foliage display:

  • Sassafras – Oranges, reds, and purples
  • Serviceberry – Vivid orange-reds
  • Sourwood – Deep red
  • Black tupelo – Scarlet red
  • Persimmon – Red-purple

The list of trees with red fall color varies by climate and geography. In general, the brightest colors occur when sunny fall days are followed by cool, but not freezing nights.

Why Do Leaves Turn Red in Fall?

Leaves turn red in autumn because of pigments called anthocyanins. These water-soluble pigments are produced from sugars trapped inside leaves as the chlorophyll breaks down when daylight lengths shorten in fall.

Anthocyanins belong to a class of plant compounds called flavonoids. Over 600 different types have been identified. They serve several functions in plants:

  • Attract pollinators
  • Protect leaves from damage by sunlight
  • Deter feeding by herbivores
  • Combat disease
  • Attract fruit-eating birds for seed dispersal

In autumn, anthocyanins provide leaves with vivid red hues. This colorful display is thought to deter aphids and other insects from feeding on leaves when they are especially vulnerable during senescence.

Why Do Some Trees Turn Red While Others Turn Yellow?

Whether a tree produces anthocyanins to turn its leaves red or carotenoids to make them yellow depends on its genetics. Maples and sumacs primarily manufacture anthocyanins in fall. Birches and aspens mostly produce carotenoids.

Environmental influences like sunlight, soil moisture, temperature, and nutrients also play a role. Some tree species, such as sweetgum, are able to produce both red anthocyanins and yellow carotenoids in their foliage.

Young leaves on the same tree may even differ in color. This is because they are exposed to varying amounts of direct sunlight, which impacts their chemical composition. Sunny outer leaves often turn red, while shaded interior leaves appear yellow.

When Do Trees Turn Red in Fall?

Trees start changing color in autumn when daylight hours get shorter and night temperatures drop. The timing depends on the species and location:

Tree Type Turn Red in Fall
Sugar maple Late September – Mid October
Red maple Late September – Early November
Sweetgum October
Flowering dogwood October
Sourwood Mid to Late October
Sumac September – November

In general, expect peak red fall foliage between mid September and mid November. The most brilliant leaf color tends to occur following warm sunny days and cool nights.

Where to See the Most Red Fall Foliage

Some of the best places in North America to enjoy stunning red autumn leaves include:

  • New England – maple and oak forests
  • Catskill Mountains – sugar maples ablaze
  • Pocono Mountains – hillsides dotted with red maples
  • Smoky Mountains – gorgeous red sumacs and sweetgums
  • Ozarks – hickories, oaks, and dogwoods
  • North Georgia – scarlet black gums and dogwoods

State and national parks with good red fall color include:

  • Green Mountain National Forest (Vermont)
  • Acadia National Park (Maine)
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina, Tennessee)
  • Roan Mountain State Park (Tennessee)
  • Watkins Glen State Park (New York)
  • Lake of the Ozarks State Park (Missouri)


Trees like maples, sumacs, sweetgums, and dogwoods turn fiery shades of red in autumn thanks to anthocyanin pigments produced when chlorophyll breaks down. These red and purple pigments protect leaves after they can no longer make food from sunlight. Bright fall foliage results from sunny days and cool nights. The timing of the most intense red colors varies by tree species and location, but usually occurs sometime between mid September and mid November.