As a child I imagined God with a paintbrush in early spring quietly stroking the canvas of the earth every few days with a new shade of green paint, clothing the bare branches of winter. I continued to imagine, after the work of growing everything through the intense heat of summer, that God picked up His paintbrush again in October; and, with a flourish of flaming color, said, “Watch now! This won’t last long!” Dramatically, what was a green-leaved sweet gum tree became in a few days a work of intense color, sporting leaves of yellow, orange, red, and purple. Shortly after the color display, each leaf fell away, leaving the branches standing like sticks against a blue sky.
It is in late October or early November that some folks make an annual pilgrimage to the mountains in the Southeastern states, in New England, Michigan, or Wisconsin to see the leaves change color. Tourists to Wisconsin in the fall are reported to spend over one billion dollars to catch the color change at its peak. Color watchers are paid to report the best viewing locations and times.
Each year I notice the color changes here at Mingo Woods on the edge of the swamp that borders Mingo Creek. The red of the sweet gum, red oak, and dogwood, the golden yellow of beech and hickory, and the variegated hues of sassafras draw me outside. I have stopped washing dishes, picked up my camera, and headed outside on a warm late Fall afternoon.
First I stopped for pictures of the Dogwood leaves and berries. To think that just a few months ago, in early spring, these trees were large swatches of white against a background of various greens. For the summer months, they sported coats of green hues, shading the picnic table and the honeybees. This day, in the same spot of nearby woods, the yellows, reds, purples, even the few dried brown ones, painted a dramatic picture. The berries were ripe and ready for the birds that will soon come to feast.
The many hickories stand tall and golden, their nuts, scattered on the ground, soon to be snatched up by the squirrels who hide them away. Many of my flower pots have holes in the soil that give away the squirrel’s habit of hiding the nuts wherever he chooses. I usually manage to collect a bucket or two of nuts to crack for holiday cakes. Occasionally I gather enough to make Hickory Syrup to give away as Christmas gifts.
The Redbud’s leaves are golden for a few days, then suddenly brown as they drop to the ground. The Tulip Poplar’s angular leaves color the forest floor in shades of orange and brown. Many trees here have leaves that redden before they fall: Oak, Sumac, Maple, Sweet Gum, and the Wild Blueberry at the edge of the western woods.
On this trip outside, a Gulf Fritillary butterfly caught my attention in the herb garden, long overgrown with the weeds of July and August, when I don’t work outside very much. She and a host of other hungry insects were visiting the flowering bed of Rosemary. Several kinds of bees, butterflies, and small skippers paused long enough to suck nectar from the blue flowers of this herb. In another herb box, the orange-yellow flowers of the Mexican Mint Marigold captured the attention of more butterflies and bees. I use both of these herbs in my kitchen; they make a great baked chicken, and the Rosemary makes roasted pecans that folks will fight over. A Katydid hung upside down on a Rosemary stem, nibbling on the foliage.
Two trees near the herb garden have rather unusual patterns on their leaves as the color changes. The Bradford Pear’s leaves don’t change from one color to another evenly; they have little border patterns, splotches of contrasting green on yellow. The leaves of the Popcorn tree* change gradually, from green to a pale yellow with dots of red. Sassafras leaves change from green to yellow and keep sprays of red that resemble blood splattered on their leaves. The leaves of the Fig tree are yellowing with brown spots, even though a few figs still hang there. I’ve eaten two ripe ones this week – very late for fig harvest. Such an out-of-season treat!
To observe the color change, which usually lasts no more than a couple of weeks, is a refreshing gift from God. It’s in my nature to ask, “How does that happen, and why now?” Learning a little about the chemistry of leaf color causes me to pay even more attention as the last leaves hang a few more days.
We learned in elementary science that the work of leaves is called photosynthesis, the process of using sunlight and chlorophyll to make the sugar needed for the tree to grow and produce seeds. Moisture is taken in by the roots up to the leaves which transform moisture and the light of the sun into food energy that feeds the rest of the tree. This intensive work occurs best when the weather is warm and the days are longer, thereby producing more sunlight.
Cool and shorter days trigger the trees to cut off the flow of food energy in and out of the leaves. There’s even a new corky growth that occurs between the leaf and where it attaches to the tree, cutting off this essential exchange, resulting in the fall of leaves we see on the ground.
The color we see in the leaves is a result of the sun’s reflection of pigments. Chlorophyll is the green pigment present in all leaf cells. Leaves also contain the yellow of xanthophyll and the orange of carotene, the familiar color we see in carrots. The yellow and orange are always in the leaf; it is only in the fall when the tree stops making food and chlorophyll breaks down that we see them. The red, bluish and purple colors we see come from a group of pigments called anthocyanins, which are sensitive to the acid level in the leaves. If the leaves are very acidic, we see more red. Less acidic, we see more purple. The brown we eventually see in all of the leaves comes from tannic acid and is essentially a waste product.
Native Americans had their own legend about leaf color. In their story, spirit hunters in the sky slew the constellation Great Bear in Autumn. As the bear’s blood dripped on the forests below, many leaves became red. Some trees turned yellow because the fat splattered out of the kettle the hunters used to cook the meat.
Stories, imaginings, and science aside, leaf color doesn’t last long. If you don’t notice and stop awhile to pay attention, the next thing you notice is that the summer trees are suddenly bare. Soon we will shiver as we walk outside in Winter’s air, and we will begin to pine for the warmth of Spring. I know that Autumn shares equal days with other seasons; however, she seems to me to have less time. One day the heat of summer, and too, too soon the layered clothes for winter, with only a short time to enjoy the just-right coolness and colors of Fall.
Interesting contrast between us and nature: we put on more clothes to stave off the cold of Winter. In the case of the deciduous tree, she sheds hers, holding the energy for new growth inside until the warmth of Spring returns. If you miss the color change this year, just wait. Depending on the weather, it’ll be back, come next Fall.
*Note on Popcorn Tree– Chinese Tallow is a tree whose roots can cause trouble for waterways. In my state, it is a tree with strong cultural traditions, especially its white seeds which look like popcorn on the tree in winter. Little bunches help to decorate houses at holidays and are sold in the lowcountry markets. I have a sister who uses my seeds in some of the wreaths she makes from Nature’s gifts. The two trees I have were gifts from friends who have died. I watch for new seedlings each year, which I immediately pull up.