Autumn was my mother's favorite season. Having had a birthday in October probably helped. She's been gone for quite a while now, but I still think of her when I enjoy the red, yellow and orange leaves.
Let's just learn about the colors of some of a few of our native trees. I will organize these by their preferred habitats. First, some trees prefer sunny forest and meadow edges with moist soil. The flowering dogwood has red leaves and somewhat red bark divided into squares. Birds love the fruit that also turns red. The berries hang on a long stalk and usually have just one seed, like a cherry.
Other trees like dry, clay-like soils in rocky areas, but also with a lot of sun. One of these is the rock elm. Its leaves turn yellow. It is very distinctive with one side of its base higher than the other side. The real corker is that its twigs and branches have corky bark. Its fruit is a samara or flat, thin, green disk. It is hairy and white on the stalk. It is very hardy and strong and has been known to have lived to the ripe old age of 175 years.
This sugar maple, in front of the opera house in Chautauqua Institution, has yellow to orange-reddish leaves this time of year.
Photo by Norman Karp
Another tree that prefers dry and rocky soil is the quaking aspen. When I walk down my road, I love to hear and see the yellow leaves shaking or quaking in the wind. You can see this specimen all over the United States, because it is the most widely distributed tree in North America. It reproduces by growing clone trees off of the roots. In Utah, there is a stand of about 47,000 trunks, a world record of being the largest single living plant. Ta da!
Some trees like to be right in the middle of wetness -in streams or very wet meadows. However, usually, it likes the edges of those areas. An example is the buttonbush. This small tree, up to 10 to 20 feet tall with multiple crooked trunks, is not my favorite in the fall, because its leaves are brown or green. Its bark is also dull gray to brown. What I do like about it is its fruit. Yes, it is a bunch of brown nutlets in the fall. However, ducks, deer, and turkeys eat them, and I love seeing them doing that.
Not all trees like the sun. Some prefer the cool shade under the tall ones reaching for the sun. That habitat is called the understory. An example is the mountain maple. It also prefers moist soils along streams and has red or orange leaves in the autumn. As the rock elm, its fruit is a samara, but this one has wings. Often, it starts out red, then changes to yellow and ends up brown. Another name for it is moose maple. Guess why? It lives in habitats that moose like. No, I haven't seen a moose on my road.
I can think of at least one tree that feels comfortable in several habitats. It grows quite well behind my barn with pretty dry soil. However, my main source suggests that it really likes to be near swamps or areas with moist to wet soil. Not only are its leaves red to orange in the fall, it has red flowers and leafstalks in the spring, and even a pair of red-winged samaras.
So, are you up for a challenge? How many trees can you identify in each of the above habitats? You could use "Trees of New York" by Stan Tekiela. It is easy to use and carry in the field.