Natural Selections: Autumn’s coat of many colors | News


By Mike Weilbacher

Many people are discovering the joy of walking into forests and fields to escape the chaos and confusion of COVID, the presidential campaign, job stress, too many Zoom meetings, whatever. But importantly, it’s true: forests are healing. The chemicals trees give off calm us; the color green is relaxing for us; even the soft edges of nature’s trees and rocks soothe our brains, weary from the straight edges of rooms and furniture.

So get into a forest, and happily Roxborough is loaded with these – the Schuylkill Center, the Wissahickon, the River Trail.

And while you’re there, enjoy the extraordinary colors available to you in an autumn forest. One of the many things I love about autumn is that trees turn characteristic colors, so that as you go for your walk, you can begin to tell trees apart by color. Trees have just begun turning color, and forest ecologists have been predicting a strong fall color season this year, as that combination of chilly weather and rainy days is good for leaf peeping.

Like dogwood. A tree of modest proportions that likely grows on your street if not your own lawn, dogwood’s leaves turns a very yummy shade of burgundy, a winey purple with bright red berries. You won’t see yellow or red dogwoods; no, they like burgundy, and are easy to see.

Our forests are filled with trees that skew to yellows. Tulip poplar, for example, the tallest, straightest tree in local forests, is easy to spot, as the tallest, yellowest trees are usually tulip poplars. Likewise, many nut trees like hickories and walnuts turn yellow, too, though walnuts tend to go first and some of ours are bare already. (Walnuts are also dropping this time of year — watch your head! And watch out for squirrels crossing roads carrying walnuts — squirrel collisions go up this time of year.)

And if you see an evergreen tree with bright yellow needles, it’s tamarack, also called larch, a conifer that breaks nature’s laws, it’s needles turning color and falling every year. Yup, it’s a deciduous evergreen.

Sassafras is another great tree. Like dogwood, it is modest in its ambitions, and like tulip poplar, hugely common in the Schuylkill Center’s forest. But it turns a uniquely sassafras color, one Crayola should patent, a combination of yellow, orange, red, even bronze — you have to see it — but also has leaves that turn each of those individual colors too. So this one modest tree encapsulates all the colors of fall on its own branches.

Then there are the reds. Red maple is well named, as while its leaves are green, its flowers are red, its leaf stems are red, and the leaves turn a bright, happy ruby in the fall. An increasingly common forest tree as deer don’t like them as much as other trees, it is the leaf in the Schuylkill Center logo, a three-pointed one. Sugar maple, its cousin famed for maple syrup, also goes red, but with a strong orange mixed in too; another favorite color.

Staghorn sumac is another great red; there has been one at the Schuylkill Center’s front doors for many years, but the lanternflies have almost killed them off with their sapsucking mouth parts. Such a bummer! I passed a stand of these along the Pennsylvania Turnpike last week, and wow did their red flags wave at me.

Believe it or not, my favorite red in the fall pantheon belongs to poison ivy, that much-hated plant, the one that gives you welts when you touch the leaves, its stem, or even the rootlets poking out of its stem, as all these parts contain the oils. Snaking up tree trunks, it’s easy to pick out poison ivy this time of year: bright red, sometimes even purple-red or orange, leaves popping out from behind the host tree’s differently colored leaves. Look for it.

Oaks and their cousins, the beeches, are just not into fall at all; they hold onto their leaves longer, even for the entire winter, begrudgingly dropping them as late as next spring, and simply turn a tired shade of brown. Their dead leaves rattle in winter winds during the coming cold season.

So go for a walk this week in the Wissahickon, at Morris Arboretum, at the Schuylkill Center, along the River Trail. Check out the glorious coat of many colors our landscape wears this time of year, and remember this: if you catch a falling autumn leaf before it hits the ground, you get to make a wish.

And the wish comes true. Enjoy.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org, and tweets @SCEEMike.



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