Well you didn’t need me to tell you that this time of year, the best thing to do is go out and look at some leaves. Some prime spots in Alabama are Mentone and Scottsboro. In North Georgia try Dahlonega and, of course, Lake Burton.
We had a dry October with cold nights, which should be good for the foliage. Warm sunny days stimulate sugar production in leaves. Cool nights prevent the sugar from being transferred out of the leaves. When leaf sugar breaks down, it produces the beautiful reds and purples of autumn, so warm sunny days followed by cool nights in October mean bright autumn colors. Alternately, cloudy days and warm nights clear sugar from the leaves. When the green chlorophyll dies, the yellows and oranges that are always present in the leaves are revealed.
We all know blackberries are sweeter when formed in dry weather because their sugar concentration is less diluted. The same is true for the sugar in tree leaves that produce bright autumn colors. Dry weather during October helps concentrate the sugar in autumn leaves, so they produce more bright reds and purples.
Tree species have a marked effect on color display. Trees with sugar-rich sap like maples, sweetgum and sourwood are more likely to show bright reds and purples than other trees. This relates to the trapped sugar. Hickories nearly always turn a gorgeous yellow because their leaves contain large amounts of the yellow pigment carotene, a compound that works along with chlorophyll to turn sunlight into energy. Oak leaves contain lots of tannin, a brown pigment. When green chlorophyll dies, the tannin is revealed often creating a beautiful amber color in autumn oak leaves.
Wherever you go, it helps to have some idea what you are looking at. It helps, first of all, to be able to identify the trees.
Starting with the most stubborn leaf changers, the oaks. White oak has rounded leaves. It is an important food source because it has the most delicious acorns, according to the beasts of the forest, and also the Native Americans who would gather in droves in the fall for acorn feasts. That is because the white oak acorn, which you can recognize because it is elongated like a bullet, falls ready to germinate. It is ripe, in other words.
The red oak has jagged bear claw leaves. And black oak is similar, only with hair underneath the leaves that you can identify by folding the leaf in half and rubbing it. They also have the possibility of brilliant deep red colors. Their acorns are more squat. Since they don’t sprout till the spring, the acorns are full of tannins, which make them taste terrible. That is how they can go without being eaten so long.
The red and black oaks can also be identified by the stark striations in their bark, sometimes known as ski slopes.
Know that you will find the fall leaves in a layered forest. The oaks of course are the upper story. There you will also find the tulip poplar, which sends down millions of feather-shaped seeds in the fall. The poplars are the first to shoot for the top whenever there is a clearing in the pines. Because of its rapid growth it had a soft workable wood the Indians loved for canoes, and the word for poplars and canoes was the same in some Indian languages. The oaks, on the other hand, patiently wait their turn until there is a breach in the canopy, and then beat every other tree to the sky.
One once mighty tree that has been reduced to almost nothing is the American chestnut. Once the most common large tree on the Eastern seaboard, the Chinese Chestnut blight all but wiped it out. Shoots and saplings still sprout on the mountainsides, and sometimes even flower, but as soon as they reach a certain size the fungus wipes them out again. Researchers believe they are close to a cure, but they are racing against time because each year the remaining rootstock sprouts and is killed back, it weakens further. If that rootstock finally dies out, the genetic material will be lost, along with another once important food source for forest creatures and indigenous people.
Down on the forest floor you will find the trees that are content to stay and go through their reproduction cycles there. In the fall you will see the bright red berries of the dogwoods. In the understory you will also find shrub-like trees like the service berry, which actually produces an edible fruit. But the reason it is called service berry is that it sports a white bloom in early spring in the mountains around the time the Appalachian snows would clear and the roads would become passable for the itinerant preachers. They could reach back in the hollows and get you. And you could have services like a baptism, or they could marry you off.
In the lower levels you will also find the lobed leaves of the sassafras tree, good for making tea and the file used in gumbo, not to mention root beer.
In the mid-range you would find the sub-canopy trees like the sourwood. It is, of course, the source of famous sourwood honey, and its bright red autumn leaves give credence to the theory that trees that produce high sugars have the most brilliant red leaves—such as the red and sugar maples that produce maple syrup.
In fact, the Latin name for the species is Ilex vomitoria. Women were not allowed to drink it, but only women were allowed to make the drink. Maybe that was a fail-safe control to keep the Creek nation from turning into the equivalent of one big crystal meth lab—except I guess it would have to be in a lodge or hogan instead of a trailer.
Finally consider the age and stage of succession of the forest. As I mentioned tulip poplar is the first hardwood to come up. The last slow-growing hard as hickory tree to rise to the occasion is, well, the hickory. And it is not easy to break open a hickory nut—which, remember, is one sign that it takes its time. When you see a hickory stand you know you are talking about mature succession.
Well, that may be enough to know about trees, but if you want more, just ask me.