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Feature Article about Fall Foliage Colors In The Ozarks

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Ozarks Tree Species Displaying Colorful Fall Foliage
written by Gary Cooley


Ozark Mountains forests are comprised of tall hardwood species forming the main canopy, with shorter understory trees growing beneath. In the Ozarks, both taller trees and understory growth produce beautiful fall foliage. In my opinion none produce the grand color of the American smoke tree, which grows to only 20 feet high.

Some 200 different tree species grow in the Ozarks, over 300 in all if counting the hybrids. The hawthorne family is the largest with 63 different species. There are 49 species of oak, 23 species of hickory, 16 of maple, and 12 of basswood. Common Ozark commercial timber species are pine, oaks, gums, elm, hickory, pecan, sycamore, hackberry, ash, beech, maple, cedar, and walnut.

Some species have no fall color, others have dull foliage. In the end, out of all these tree species, only 10 or 12 display intense fall foliage.

Hardwoods in the Ozarks sporting yellow through orange foliage are sweetgum, sugar maple, red maple, silver maple, and sassafras. Ozarks trees producing brilliant red and crimson are typically red and  silver maples, flowering dogwood, redbud, red oak, blackgum, and swamp chestnut oak. Trees producing purple foliage will typically be sweetgum, blackgum, and certain oaks.

Notice that I have listed some tree species under more than one color. The colors on the same tree may vary from year to year. The maple tree which was orange last year may well be yellow this year.

Which species produce the most intense color? As always, it will depend on which trees happen to receive that magical combination of summer rain, sunlight, soil nutrients, cool nights, no hard frosts, and no heavy rain fall or strong winds during the peak.


It is not unusual to see a long line of foliage running through a ridge top, in a valley, or along a stream bed. Like most ecosystems, the Ozarks have widely varied soil types, moisture levels, and temperature zones. Each tree species has a preferred environment, and they'll soon take over an area matching their ultimate growing conditions. Oaks tend to do best on north facing slopes, in ravines, and in smaller stream valleys. Since the Ozarks are one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, and since they have been worn down over that long time frame, and because slopes face all possible directions, the number of different growing zones is amazing. The result is unusual species like the blue ash, the river birch, and the gum bumelia. It can be very difficult to identify a particular tree with a beautiful foliage display!

About Gary & Mary Cooley

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