By Naturalist Eric D’Aleo
For many of us who live in New England or visit the area at this time of year; we look forward with eager anticipation to the spectacular annual pageant of fall color, found in the mountains, forests, and fields around us. Our region is known throughout the world for the foliage season as not many locations put on such a blaze of glorious color every year. Although the colors may vary in richness and hue, with some years being more colorful than others, the factors that affect the brightness of a leaf in fall are universal. The amount of sunlight, the change in temperature, and precipitation over the growing season are three important factors that affect color. A succession of warm, sunny days and cool, crisp but not freezing nights seem to bring about the most spectacular color displays; if they aren’t “aligned correctly” then our colors may be a little bit less showy than in other years.
Regardless of how vibrant the colors are in the New Hampshire landscape each season, I’m often captivated with other points of interests about the colors and where to find them. The progression of colors always starts out as a trickle and I’m constantly surprised when I first see the transition begin while the asters and goldenrods are still in bloom as the rear guard of the summer season. During this time I usually notice that the leaves of the milkweed start to yellow, my first clue that fall is approaching. As I look at the trees, the birch, aspen, and cherry start to yellow I feel them announcing the arrival of fall. The tupelos found on the shoreline of Squam Lake may turn scarlet on individual branches or over an entire tree in early fall. This may sometimes confuse visitors to the area into thinking that the maples are turning. However, the tupelo tree is at the most northern part of its range in New Hampshire and changes color earlier than it does further south. Later in the season, I notice the maples and stag horn sumac near my house begin to change colors at about the same time, showing red, orange, or yellow on the leaves depending on their location, light and temperature. I am surprised at how vibrant the colors of the sumac can be, rivaling the colors of the maples nearby. Later in the fall the as the yellows, bronzes, and oranges of the oaks and beeches become more visible, they remind me that the colorful show is drawing to a close.
Aside from the grand vistas of colorful foliage of fall, I’m also drawn to look at and photograph the color of individual leaves, particularly those with multiple colors on the same leaf. For some reason I’m always in search of hobble bush, or witches’ hobble, an understory vibernum that grows in dense tangles found in New England that can make walking through a stand treacherous. Because of the variability of light that reaches the leaves and the temperature around the shrub it is possible to have the edge of the leaf a dark maroon color while the central portion of the leaf is still a vibrant green. I find these colors quite striking, especially in the right light. Beech leaves also have a similar attractive pattern where you may find a bronze edge, with a yellow center except for the green veins of the leaf that still contain small amounts of chlorophyll.
During the fall I’m constantly looking for other sources of color, not just the leaves. Witch hazel, another understory shrub found along forest edges, has a slender, delicate yellow bloom in the fall that can be easily overlooked by focusing on its bright yellow leaves. Winterberry holly, a shrub found in moist areas, has already produced bright red berries that contrast sharply with their still green leaves. Wild grape and high bush cranberry have also produced colorful berries advertising their nutritious snacks to hungry songbirds on their migrations southward. Even vines like Virginia creeper and poison ivy get in on the act putting on a flashy show of colorful leaves. One word of warning however, if you are a person who likes to make arrangements of fall colors, make sure that you can correctly identify the branches, vines, and leaves of plants for your arrangement. Poison ivy can have very striking colors, but cutting and arranging them for an indoor arrangement can be an unpleasant experience.
Even if it is a wet fall, don’t get discouraged in looking for fall colors. Instead of looking overhead, look underfoot. This years abundant rainfall in New Hampshire has made the forest floor look like a fungus garden. These fruiting fungus bodies have an amazing variety of shapes, sizes, and colors: from white, brown, blue, and yellow, to fluorescent orange. They are quite a sight to see. However, again be careful, that you can identify mushrooms correctly, as there are some that can be harmful to humans. If in doubt, don’t touch it, but study them from a close distance to enjoy their variable colors.
Finally, don’t forget to look in the obvious places for fall colors, the vegetable gardens, orchards, and fields nearby. Apple trees heavy with fruit on a cool, crisp, blue morning aren’t just fun to pick and eat but fun to observe too. There’s something nice about walking out to look at them in the morning light with a warm cup of tea or coffee before the picking begins in earnest. Pumpkins are another obvious source of fall color as they seem to glow to life underneath the dying foliage as the nights get cooler. Even beet greens still growing out of the ground in the early morning light have a bright and beautiful display of fuchsia, white, and green
So why not take a moment to look around and enjoy the amazing colorful display around you this fall?