Our Autumn Foliage

Garden and Forest
Vol V, No. 207. Feb. 10, 1892. Pp. 70-71.
Meetings of Societies.
The Western New York Horticultural Society. – II.

We herewith continue the report of this meeting, which was begun last week. The first paper quoted was by Mr. Wm. McMillan, Superintendent of Parks in Buffalo, and it was entitled

Our Autumn Foliage.

It is a well-known fact that the autumn colors of the foliage of the American fields and forests are much more brilliant than the tints assumed by the ripening foliage of the woods and waysides of Europe. This notable difference is usually attributed solely to the difference in climate, and more especially to the relatively larger amount of sunshine in America. This explanation may seem reasonable if the comparison be made with the north-westerly half of Europe, where the autumn weather is much cooler and cloudier than here. But the skies of southern Europe are said to be as clear as our own. Near the Mediterranean the autumn days are milder and brighter than in any of our northern and eastern states. Yet the far-famed sunny sky of Spain, of Italy, or of Greece does not color the ripening foliage either on trees or underbrush so strongly or so generally as the American sun does, whether the season here be clear or cloudy. Difference of climate, therefore, cannot be the sole reason, perhaps not the chief one.

There is a common belief that frost is a principal agent in producing the most striking tints, and hence we often hear the remark made that the most highly colored leaves are tinged by frost. This must seem a strange delusion to any one who watches closely the development of the different shades on the earliest species that ripen long before the first touch of frost. In fact, it may be noted that, as a rule, the brightest tints, whether of red or yellow, and the most extensive display of either, appear during the first half of the season; and the trees and shrubs which turn later show their best hues when the advent of frost is longest delayed. When the frost finally comes all foliage susceptible to its touch shows that its action is always to tarnish and never to varnish. Yet it is so easy and natural to reason the autumn leaves are bright-colored because they are frost bitten, that it is quite probable that this will always remain the common belief.

If, then, the influence of frost is always to blur rather than to brighten the foliage, and if also, as is generally conceded,our northern states are subject to the first killing frost at an earlier date than in Europe, the more gorgeous coloring of our autumn woods must seem strangely anomalous if it occur in spite of these disadvantages. I can account for this apparent anomaly only by assuming that it is due to the difference in the species most prevalent in each country than to difference in climate. Of the species most showy or abundant here, none are indigenous in Europe. Conversely, this explanation is confirmed by observing that most, if not all, of the European trees and shrubs cultivated here show even a less body color than in their native country. As a general rule, European trees and shrubs grown here retain their foliage much later than American plants of related genera. Consequently, our first frosts come on foliage still partially green, and the effect is to stain or whither rather than to color.

If, then, the high color of our autumn foliage is due to the difference in the species of our trees and shrubs, it may be interesting to note some of the kinds that are brightest or most abundant. It will be seen that the number of species is comparatively few, and that the gorgeous appearance of our forests and fields in autumn is owing rather to the general or extensive distribution of these few kinds. The earliest tree to herald the approach of autumn is the Red Maple. It is closely followed by the Virginia Creeper, the Sour Gum, and the several species of Sumach. All of these assume intense shades of red, and their great abundance makes them everywhere conspicuous. Later, the various shades of yellow appear on the Sugar Maple, the Swamp Ashes, the Small-nut Hickories, Butternut, the Tulip-tree, Poplar, Birch, Larch, Spice-bush, Witch-hazel and Yellow Root.

If the season be favorable, a considerable body of darker or duller shades of yellow is furnished by the Elm, Beech, Walnut, Chestnut, Basswood, Mountain Ash and Grape-vine. Meanwhile, as the earlier species with reddish leaves drop their foliage, the various shades of red and reddish purple are continued by the Red and the Scarlett Oaks, Sweet Gum, Hornbeam, Shadbush, Hazel, and the several species of Dogwood, Viburnum, Whortleberry and Blackberry. This list is not large, but each species is very widely represented in all our northern woods and by-ways. There are a few other species not so widely distributed that may show on close inspection remarkably bright tints and variegations, such as the Buckeye, Sassafras and Honey Locust, but at a distance these contribute very little to the general display.

We are wont to speak of autumn leaves as being golden, orange, scarlet, crimson, purple, etc., but these terms are rarely accurate on close inspection. When illuminated by sunshine and seen at a favorable distance and angle with the sunbeam, these terms may be appropriate. But on critical examination at close quarters the leaves that showed so clear and pure a tint as the light shown through them or glanced from them, reveal usually a more or less stained mixture of impure shades. In purity or delicacy of tint they will not bear comparison with flowers, or even with the fresh hues of the opening leaves on some species in the spring.

It must be remembered that the whole display is but a fleeting show — a kind of dissolving view. The duration of the brightest tints is very brief, and to be seen to the best advantage they must be sought and found at exactly the right nick of time. On the most tempting plants a long hunt through the branches may be required before a single leaf is found that is pure or uniform in color, or perfect in form and texture. The outer foliage is usually too much browned or torn by sun and wind, and so the clearest colors and best preserved specimens are more common toward the interior of the tree or bush. This is more noticeable in foliage of any yellow shade than of either red or purple. To develop the latter hues more sunlight is necessary. It is sometimes curious to observe the sharp contrast on the same leaf, when one part of it has been fully colored in the sunlight, while the other portion, hidden under an overlapping leaf, is still quite green.

Usually each species of tree or shrub assumes the same tints each autumn, varying in degree only according as the season is favorable or not. But some species sport considerably, sometimes being arrayed in orange or parti-colored livery, instead of yellow, red or purple. The Sugar Maple, the Sassafras, the Buck Eye and the Sweet Gum are examples in point, and also the Red Maple, the  Shadbush, the Poison Ivy and the Poison Dogwood. Of all our native shrubs this last is surely the most gorgeously arrayed in autumn. The most noxious plant in all our woods may thus be charged with “stealing the livery of Heaven to serve the devil in.”

When the Sugar Maples shows a strongly reddish tinge it is a pretty sure indication of starvation or disease. It often happens that some branch is affected while the others are healthy, and thus it will become prematurely and strongly colored while the others are yet green. The leaf of the Sugar Maple is often remarkably veined and variegated, the striping and mottling being so bold and so strong as to resemble the figures on the wings of butterflies. On the same tree or branch leaves of this kind may be found along with others having all shades of yellow or orange or russet.

The White Ash ripens through a curious range of colors unlike any other tree. The green leaf darkens to chocolate and purple, and then turning to violet gradually lightens to brown and yellow. Several of the Oaks have also rare shades of red, russet and tan. As the tissue of all Oak-leaves is too thick to let much sunlight pass through, these colors seem at distance duller than they appear at short range. Semi-transparent leaves show off to the best advantage in autumn, as the sunbeam makes crimson leaves seem scarlet, russet leaves golden, and lightens every hue in like manner.

Our ornamental plantations make little impression on the general landscape. Of the many trees and shrubs in ordinary cultivation a large proportion are of European origin, and very few are notable for the color of their autumn foliage. As already stated, most of them are harmed by frost in this latitude before the foliage has had time to fully. The Norway Maple is perhaps the most notable exception to the rule. When the season is favorable it fairly rivals its near relative, the Sugar Maple. The Horse-chestnut turns yellow in a favorable season or situation, but its foliage is often prematurely seared by heat or drought or browned by fungi. One other European plant, the Smoke-bush, assumes a strong ruddy tint, showing thus its blood relationship to our Sumachs, a family of plants all notable for the crimson hues of their dying foliage, and also for the various dyes and varnishes and tannic acids obtained by draining their veins after death.

We have in cultivation many trees and shrubs from China and Japan, all of which likewise retain their foliage later than the related species indigenous here. Consequently few of them have the opportunity in this latitude to show the bright colors they occasionally display farther south. But the Plum-leaved Spirea, and the creeper called usually Japanese Ivy, show brilliant shades of red if the season be favorable. The rich variegation and strong contrast of colors exhibited by this so-called Ivy are very striking, because the foliage shows simultaneously every stage of the ripening process from the growing twig to the dropping leaves. Its cousin, the Virginia Creeper, sheds all its foliage a month sooner, its crimson tinge being remarkably strong and uniform over the whole plant. Two foreign coniferous trees, the Larch and the Maiden-hair, that, unlike the Pines, shed their leaves in autumn, change to a bright yellow, and are very conspicuous in a favorable season. Another tree of this family, the Bald Cyprus of the southern states, is equally notable for its ruddy tinge.

But the fresh verdure which many foreign plants exhibit, for weeks later than species of the same genera indigenous here, is some compensation for the lack of high color on their immature leaves. This lively and lasting green affords a fine contrast to the autumn coloring of all our native foliage already dying or dead. Some of these plants have a sub-evergreen character, and are but slightly tarnished by frost until perhaps the middle of December, as may be noticed on all the Japanese Privets and Honeysuckles. When finally all the deciduous trees have shed their leaves, the foliage of the evergreen Spruces, Pines and Cedars becomes conspicuous, but generally its aspect is too sombre to be specially attractive, until it becomes heightened by contrast with the snows of winter.

In conclusion, some notice should, perhaps, be taken of the herbaceous foliage of our fields and by-ways in autumn. Strong shades of yellow are common, and some others are reddish purple, most notably the Poke-weed, the strong crimson dyes of which must be familiar to all of you. In our eastern and northern swamps the Cranberry vines are often remarkably ruddy, and in the sea-side marshes the Samphire may be seen in autumn in large patches, that attract the eye a long way off by the intense crimson of the leafless stems, which are brighter in color than the brightest foliage of either forest or field.