Abstract Background Recent research has suggested that autophagy can provide a better mechanism for inducing cell death than current therapeutic strategies. This study investigated the effects of using an ethanol extract of Chrysanthemum zawadskii Herbich (ECZ) to induce apoptosis and autophagy associated with reliable signal pathways in mouse colon cancer CT-26 cells. Methods Using ECZ on mouse colon cancer CT-26 cells, cell viability, annexin V/propidium iodide staining, acridine orange staining, reactive oxygen species (ROS) and western blotting were assayed. Results ECZ exhibited cytotoxicity in CT-26 cells in a dose-dependent manner. ECZ induced apoptosis was confirmed by caspase-3 activation, poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase cleavage, and increased production of reactive oxygen species (ROS). Furthermore, it was shown that ECZ induced autophagy via the increased conversion of microtubule-associated protein 1 light chain 3II, the degradation of p62, and the formation of acidic vesicular organelles. The inhibition of ROS production by N-Acetyl-L-cysteine resulted in reduced ECZ-induced apoptosis and autophagy. Furthermore, the inhibition of autophagy by 3-methyladenine resulted in enhanced ECZ-induced apoptosis via increased ROS generation. Conclusion These findings confirmed that ECZ induced ROS-mediated autophagy and apoptosis in colon cancer cells. Therefore, ECZ may serve as a novel potential chemotherapeutic candidate for colon cancer.