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 carotene that makes carrots orange is also responsible for making certain tree 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                 

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