Monday, October 12, 2020

The Magnificence of Autumn Trees

A view looking up into a magnificent yellow-leafed tree.

 “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower” – Albert Camus

As I write this, in the northern parts of our globe Nature is putting on one of its most spectacular displays – colorful fall foliage. As a child in Virginia, this was a magical time for me. The crisp air, the smell of burning leaf piles and fireplaces lighting up, the beauty of the trees, the excitement of all the Fall holidays – it was all just so exhilarating. Now that I live in the Sonoran Desert, I am hopelessly nostalgic at this time of year.

A line-up of similar trees with different colors.As the season heads toward winter, spurred on by shorter days, trees in cooler climates begin releasing hormones that cut off the chlorophyll to their leaves as they prepare to overwinter. The gorgeous colors in the leaves, which had been hidden by the chlorophyll up to this point, are made delightfully visible again. The chemicals that cause specific colors in leaves do the same thing for other plants. The chemical carotene makes carrots green and is responsible for making certain leaves go orange. Anthocyanins turn leaves red, but cause fruits like blueberries and grapes to turn purple-blue. Evergreens keep their green on in winter due to their uniquely shaped needles, which are compact and watertight. If they do drop leaves it will be in the spring, when older leaves can turn yellow and fall off.

A view looking down on a road winding through a forest of multi-colored trees.
In the United States, the image of fall (a uniquely American way of saying autumn) foliage is dominated by images of New England. Undeniably awe-inspiring, the colors of fall are much more than a thing of beauty in New England – they are an economic boon to the area. After the lake-dwellers, beach-goers, boaters, and hikers have left, and before those states are hit hard by winter, there is a rush of tourism to see the trees. “Leaf-peeping” (as they call it up there) can bring in as much as three billion dollars a season. Not an insignificant amount.

A snow-covered mountain with a grove of Aspen trees in the foreground. Off Last Dollar Road in southern Colorado.
It’s the variety of deciduous trees here in North America that makes our viewing especially colorful. We have vast hardwood forests, which produce vivid and diverse displays of color. The colors of New England show all of them. But, the western US has some incredible displays as well, although there may not be as many varieties of tree species. The spectacularly photogenic aspen trees in their large groves, for instance, rival any New England vista for sheer magnificence. If you are interested in what colors are peaking where and when, this article can help. NASA also keeps track of fall colors.

A house by a green field on a fjord with colorful forests all around it. There is a boat moving on the water.
Spectacular autumn foliage is not only occurring in North America right now, of course. All across
Europe, they are being treated to their own version of this Nature’s gift. In Scandinavian countries, you can even see the Northern Lights after a day of viewing autumn leaves –a Nature double-feature for sure. Russia, with its immense tracts of forests, has leaf-peeping for days – literally – a trip across the country (Moscow to Vladivostok) by train takes 7 days. If you are brave and hardy enough, it will take you a minimum of 11 days to drive. In St. Petersburg, they call it Golden Autumn (a term attributed to the beloved poet Pushkin) and it looks amazing – see more on St. Petersburg here and other Russian Fall destinations here.

A white marble building by a lake in St. Petersburg, Russia
In the northern Far East Asian countries, the arrival of fall colors is holiday-time. China has many traditional and wildly popular Red Leaves Festivals that last the month of October. In the Sichuan province, the Red Leaves Festival at Guangwu Mountain is considered by many to be the most beautiful spot in China to see fall color (see a video here). Beijing also hosts visitors in the city itself and the surrounding countryside. The number of people who travel to see trees across China is staggering – tens of millions of visitors will come to just one site. According to Beijing Holiday, in one year 90 million people visited the Xiangshan Red Leaves Festival on the outskirts of Beijing.

Mist and red foliage around the Great Wall of China.

In Japan, the sublime pleasure of tree-watching is more than a seasonal pastime, it is a deeply-held cultural rite. In the spring, they gather to appreciate the spectacular flowering of cherry trees in an event called hanami (roughly “viewing the flowers”). In Autumn, it is koyo (the phenomenon of changing Autumn colors) and, more specifically, the glorious maple tree. References to and metaphors about this tree are deeply entrenched in the Japanese world. For instance, there are expressions like “Maple leaves and a deer”, which defines a good match (for more on all this, go here). The Japanese have also created a seasonal delicacy that dates back more than 1300 years - tempura-battered maple leaves (momiji tempura). They only use the yellow leaves, apparently the red just doesn’t work. Leaves are first pickled and then battered and deep-fried. I can honestly say this article makes them sound divine and I would definitely try one.

Deep-fried maple leaves with a white napkin underneath them in a grey bowl with chopsticks.While all this is going on in the northern half of the world, in the southern half it is spring going into summer. Autumn in those places goes from March into May. If you think of deserts and beaches when you think of Australia, you’re right. They have a lot of that. But they also have some majestic mountain ranges. The Dandenong Ranges, not far from Melbourne in the southern part of the country, are not the largest mountains in Australia, but they are appreciated for their display of colors. Their peak color season is March. Here is an article on that beautiful place and here is one on other places for leaf-peeping Aussie style. On another continent in the southern hemisphere, the Patagonia region of Argentina and Chile, draws foliage tourists from near and far. Their peak time is April. See some of that (including a video) here.

Leaves in all colors by Phil Barnett.

So, if you had the time, resources, and inclination, you could travel around the world enjoying autumnal foliage. You could go Down Under in March-April, visit southern South America in April-May, and then spend the summer months in the middle of the globe where the daylight stays mostly the same year-round and trees don’t change. Come September, you could head north and begin the leaf-peeping process in New England. It sounds like a wonderful way to live to me.A cartoon with 2 faces, one with sunglasses and one with a white beard. It says "Greetings from Red Leaf Forest. The hottest nature around".

Take Care.

Submitted by Pam                 

Friday, October 2, 2020

Did You Know? The Tree Edition


Trees with moss covered roots in a forest with a carpet of orange leaves. The Otzaretta Forest, Spain

We’re going to play a game called “Did You Know?” in which I try to dazzle you with some surprising, and hopefully new-to-you, facts. In this edition of the game, trees are the subject. Here we go:

DID YOU KNOW that trees didn’t exist for the first 90% of Earth’s history?

According to, the timeline goes like this: Earth is 4.5 billion years old – 470 million years ago plants arrived on land, but they were mosses and algae – 420 million years ago vascular plants appeared, but they were small (under 3 feet) – after that, tens of millions of years passed before trees as we know them developed. Making them downright modern in the big picture of Earth.

A tree in Indonesia with carved out burial chambers for children.
DID YOU KNOW that there’s a place where they bury babies in trees?

In Tana Toraja, Indonesia, babies who die before they start teething are lovingly placed in hollowed-out holes of special trees. These trees can hold dozens of babies. The belief is that the tree will absorb the child’s spirit and gently send it on its way. For more, check out this article

DID YOU KNOW that there are six ginkgo trees that survived the atomic blast at Hiroshima?

 There is also a pear tree that lived through 9/11 at the World Trade Center and an elm that survived the Oklahoma City bombing. In Japan, the trees have become potent symbols of national resilience and are greatly honored and protected. The pear and elm here in the US have also been protected; but, unfortunately, they do not seem to hold a place in their nation’s heart as the ginkgoes do.

DID YOU KNOW that the fastest-growing hardwood tree is the Empress Splendor Tree?

A beautiful Empress Splendor tree in bloom by a lake.
The Guinness Book of World Records has recognized this beautiful tree (Paulownia tomentosa) as the fastest growing hardwood. It can mature in 7-10 years, is fire and insect resistant, and prefers being raised organically. And, according to, it produces 3-4 times the oxygen than other known tree species. It seems like this non-invasive species could be the perfect tree. Read more here.

DID YOU KNOW that there is a 1360-acre forest in India planted by one man? 

In 1979, when he was just 16 years old, Jaday Molai Payeng came across some snakes that had died on a riverbed. They had become stranded and succumbed to extreme heat because there was no shade for them to cool in. The sight of those unfortunate creatures compelled him to do something about de-forestation in his area. He began planting bamboo and moved up to trees and has been planting ever since. His forest (known as the Molai forest) now holds more than trees – deer, tiger and rhinoceros roam there. Truly a story of how one person can change the world. See him in his forest here.

A sign pointing the way to the Tree of Life in the distance.
DID YOU KNOW that there is a 400-year-old tree in Baharain that’s alone out in the desert?

Known as the Tree of Life, locals will tell you this mesquite tree stands where the Garden of Eden once was. It is on a 25-foot hilltop (the highest point in Bahrain), far away from any other trees or any sources of water. Scientists say it gets its water from an incredibly deep (over 100 ft.) taproot and other extremely far-reaching roots; but others say it comes from Enki, the god of water. 

A Old Tree In A Courtyard-The Chapel of Allouville-Bellefosse
DID YOU KNOW that there's a chapel in an oak tree in France?

Some say this is the oldest tree in France, and it certainly is quite old – perhaps 1,000 years. In the late 1600’s it was struck by lightning and, taking that as a sign from God, they built a church in it. For more on its story, read this.

DID YOU KNOW that the rarest tree in the world lives on a remote island in the South Pacific?

This starts out as a sad story but ends on a high note: On the very small and very remote Manawatāwhi island off the coast of New Zealand, sits a wild tree that is the last of its kind– a kaikōmako. At one time, there were plenty of kaikōmako trees on the island; but, in 1889 some thoughtful-but-unaware people decided to put a colony of goats on the islands to serve as a food source for shipwreck survivors (apparently shipwrecks were common enough for this to make sense). The goats ate all the trees but one. The last one only survived because it lived on an inaccessible cliff 700 feet over the ocean. In the decades since then, conservationists have had a series of setbacks trying to figure out how to save this species. But now, with the help of the Maori, they have saplings planted with great hopes. Learn more here.

Close-up of the trunk of a Sandbox Tree
DID YOU KNOW that there is a tree with potentially deadly explosive fruit? 

Also known as the “Dynamite Tree”, the sandbox tree (Hua crepitans) is a member of the spurge family that can be found in tropical parts of Central and South America (and in south Florida). It has nasty-looking spikes all over the trunk and poisonous sap and fruit. But the real clincher is the seed pods of this tree – they look like mini pumpkins and explode loudly when mature, sending pieces flying out at the speed of a bullet. You do not want to be nearby when that thing goes off. Learn more and watch one blow here.

DID YOU KNOW that there are more trees on Earth than there are stars in our galaxy?

Scientists estimate there could be as many as 200-400 billion stars in our galaxy. That is still way below the estimated one trillion trees on our planet. I first got this factoid from a blog on I encourage you to check them out – they are a Canadian company that plants ten trees for every product sold. That is truly a noble mission worth supporting.

DID YOU KNOW that there are trees that grow sideways? 

Trees bent over from the wind. Slope Point, New Zealand.
There is seemingly no end to stories about the resilience of trees. These trees in Slope Point, New Zealand are the epitome of such determination. With nothing standing between them and Antarctica, they have to deal with relentless, fierce wind from that frozen place. They also sit on cliffs above the water, which creates even more of a “whoosh” as the wind comes over the lip of the land. So, they’ve adapted and grow sideways now. I don't know how the sheep stay standing. See more here.

DID YOU KNOW that there is a tree that loves red underwear and pot?

There are trees that are considered sacred all over the planet, and often people leave offerings by such trees. However, there is only one that prefers gifts of red male underwear and cannabis – the Ghost Tree in Bagahi Kumhapur, India. Why does this pipal (Ficus religiosa) need such things? Who knows? It’s just a party animal, I guess. See it (and some other way cool trees) here.

A grey tree with a cartoon face dancing while holding a beer and a cigarette.
Party Animal Tree


                    Take care out there.

                                            Submitted by Pam.

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