Give thanks for autumn leaf color
By: By JIMMY WILLIAMS Special to The Messenger
Boughs are daily rifled by the gusty thieves,
And the book of Nature getteth short of leaves.
Thanksgiving day has come and gone but thanks giving, I trust, will be in our hearts every day until the official holiday returns a year hence.
Gardeners could accurately claim this has not been a year for giving much thanks, what with the worst growing conditions in anyone’s lifetime. Heat, drought and freeze created a conspiracy all in the same year to such a point that literally thousands of plants lie dead over the area, as we speak.
Despite that, how could anyone drive along the byways and highways of Henry County, or walk out the front door for that matter, and fail to marvel at the autumn color that has pervaded our environs for the past couple of weeks?
After such a spring and summer that fell our lot, it has been nothing short of amazing that foliage color showed up at all. The naysayers were predicting back in August that fall color might be poor or even practically nonexistent.
In fact it has turned out to be as fine as ever, and better than in a lot of years when weather conditions were more normal. The conflagration has been a good two weeks late, but once it arrived it did itself proud.
Why so late I can’t say for sure, but I believe the drought put things into a suspended state for its duration. Leaves on many small trees fell right off, but those on large, old specimens simply sat there until better conditions returned, which is to say not until October. Then the trees reacted by turning on the lights.
While our foliage color usually peaks at about the last week of October or the first of November, this year it was well into the second week of this month before much happened, and it is still in fine fettle on some trees even now. The best russet, tans, yellows and reds of the oaks is just starting.
The old city park property on East Wood Street has some of the largest sweetgums in town. They are based well below the street and the tops of the behemoths are right at eye level as you pass, making for the best view.
Colors of varied description are to be seen. As is the wont of sweetgums, no two adjoining specimens are exactly the same color. In the park, there are oranges, pinkish-orange, bright red, yellow, purple and everything in between.
Right at the east property line of the park and near Wood Street and the old “Dr. Fry” residence there is one particular sweetgum that, two weeks ago, was such a dark maroon-purple that it seemed black. I don’t recall ever seeing one as dark.
The black gums this year have been spectacular. We have several old black gums in our woodland and they have ranged from orange to yellow to red, but are now almost bare. Some years leaf spot fungus renders black gums green right up until they shed.
One can always depend on most maples of every species to bring on fall color, and they have this year. Even silver maples, which otherwise are sorry trees, have colored up to a bright yellow.
Tulip poplars, which were threatening to completely defoliate in August, recovered and held brilliant yellow leaves for some weeks. They are now shedding.
Just about the most brilliant of our fall reds is that of sumac and sourwood. Sumac is seldom thought of as a landscape plant, but a grove of them (they sucker readily) will beautify any outlying area on a sizeable property where they can spread at will.
Sourwood, on the other hand, is a refined tree and one of the most beautiful of our natives. They are common in Henry County but much more plentiful on the ridges of Benton County and in Middle Tennessee. They bloom at a useful time, in July and August, when few other trees are flowering. Each bloom is presented along a stem with many others and resembles a lily of the valley. Following bloom, the seedpods remain showy until fall color kicks in.
And what color it is. The leaves seem to have been laquered and polished and are a more brilliant red than just about any other fall color. They stay that way for a long time before shedding.
A couple of weeks ago I was crow hunting with Crockett Mathis and Elroy Clary and we found ourselves in a puzzle of roads south of Bruceton. We wandered into an area of red sand pits and scrub land that was, however, rife with sourwoods, the most prolific stand of them I can recall seeing in one place. The red was almost blinding and a spectacular sight. Oh, for a camera.
Few trees are worth planting for only their fall coloring. Make sure that you’re not so enamored of some particular tree over its fall color that you plant what might otherwise be a rather ordinary — or worse — specimen.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger on 11.27.07
Jimmy Williams, The Garden Path