Subtle colors of late fall

By Boak Wiesner

The winds of late have brought down most of the leaves but patches of color could still be found in the off corner here and there around the Arb. Not a whole lot of folks around but a few hardy souls braved the chilly afternoon after a nice morning. How fast the weather changes these days!

On a slow drive around the loop, tamaracks glowing in the distance made it look like the sky was on fire. I figured that since both Aldo Leopold and Minnesota’s own Sigurd F. Olson write about them, I’m in good company in my admiration of their ‘smoky gold’ of late fall. These here are not the native kind – ours have smaller cones – but their golden glow certainly lit up an otherwise gloomy November afternoon. Their wood, I have learned, not only resists rot but is supple enough to be bent into snowshoe frames. Europeans call them larches.

Larches with cones

Larches with cones

Around what I call Rhododendron Corner, an orangey-gold radiance stopped me in my tracks. Because I teach about all this ‘nature stuff’, I am very familiar with species that are native and local so when I see something unusual, I have to check it out. These turned out to be American Beech trees, which I had last seen in their typical habitat around the corner of Lake Michigan in Indiana. They’re part of the Oak family

Beech leaves

Beech leaves

Red Oaks retain their leaves sometimes throughout the winter and thus are the most likely suspect when you’re looking for the last splashes of anything but the sere browns and grays of the late fall.

Red oaks

Red oaks

One of my earliest and strongest lessons about trees came in my Grandma’s yard where she let people come and rake up the Red Oak leaves to use as covering for their gardens. Clever woman she – not only did she get her leaves raked but the people paid her a little for the leaves! What makes them red is the tannins in the wood and leaves. Tannins resist the action of fungi and bacteria thus allowing them to persist through the winter and not turn to mush. A glance at the forest floor shows that most of the leaves remaining at this point in the fall are oak leaves. Maples and basswood leaves have already been degraded.

Leaves of red and bur oak

Leaves of red and bur oak

Wandering out into an old pasture on the west side, I found some Goldenrod, seed heads bursting with readiness to spread their seeds. Like the more familiar dandelion seeds, goldenrod uses wind-born structures, each called a pappus, to get their seeds dispersed by the wind.

Seed heads of goldenrod

Seed heads of goldenrod

Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist volunteer.

 

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