Thursday, November 19, 2009


Autumn or Fall - which should it be? Well, as a Brit, I always thought it was Autumn in the UK and Fall in North America, but that doesn’t appear to be strictly so. Over here, both words seem to be used pretty much equally and I can’t really seem to put my finger on the difference. However, I think it is this; autumn is the period between summer and winter when the weather cools off and the days start to shorten. Fall is a shorter period, the time when the leaves fall off the trees. Autumn colour of leaves is big business over here; from Canada and New England, southward in stages to South Carolina and Georgia, the leaves changing colour on the trees is an annual event not to be missed - and for good reason. Geographical and climatic factors (as well as physiological factors affecting the trees themselves) have clubbed together to ensure that North America gets superb autumn colour; as the season progresses southward, people go out to enjoy the show - and it’s such a big event that there’s a name for it. It’s called ‘Leaf-peeping’. National TV channels give out forecasts for the coming week to highlight the locations which should be getting the best colour. What a great way to celebrate one of nature’s greatest annual spectacles.

The best colour comes from a period of warm, mild days, and cold, frosty nights, the cold snaps trapping sugars in the leaves and resulting in the riot of colour we love to enjoy. Slightly more technically, the colours are present in the leaves all along, but are masked by the rich green colour provided by the chloroplasts in the leaves - these are the ‘factories’ that manufacture sugars as food for the plant using sunlight, water and readily available gasses from the air. It is thus when the chloroplasts die off at the end of summer as day length (and thus light availability and the ability to function) tails off and the green colour disappears, that we see the other colours. Why some trees turn red, others yellow, still others purple, is more technical, mostly to do with wavelengths of light and the density of the leaf structure and all that! Far too technical for here, this isn’t school it’s supposed to be enjoyable!

Back to reality! Leaf colour this year around Cape May County was, unfortunately, tempered by wet and windy weather which meant colours were a little muted in places and didn’t last as long as they might (the leaves just blew away!). Even so, there were some awesome moments and even as I write, we have some colour left, four weeks after it all started (indeed, the Pyrus calleryana trees that are so popular in gardens around here, are only just coming to their best in the second half of November). So here’s a few of my highlights from this season; I’ll be hoping for less wind and rain next year!)

Red Maple Acer rubrum is one of the commonest trees in Cape May County, especially in wet woodland tracts. The great thing about Red Maples is that they seem to turn any shade of red, orange or yellow, adding an amazing variety of colour to the show. Here, one Red Maple lives up to its name and turns red, while the one right next to it goes yellow. The two are nicely set off by the rich green of the oak next to them and, in fact, give a wonderful rendition of a Rastafarian hat!

Photographing against the light gives a whole new dimension to autumn colour. Here, a Red Maple adopts a speckled pattern as it turns from yellow to red.

Another Red Maple; this one was glowing beside the road and just asking to be photographed!

Sweet Gum Liquidambar styraciflua adds spectacularly to the local autumn colour as a single tree can adopt just about every autumn colour imaginable at one and the same time! Another widespread and common species in Cape May, this particular individual shows the full compliment of green, yellow, orange, red and deep purple.

Here, the maple-like leaves of Sweet Gum on the left contrast with the rich, red, shiny leaves on the right. You could be lured into getting up close and really enjoying these fabulous leaves - but beware! This wonderful show is put on by Poison-ivy Toxicodendron radicans a plant which is abundant in Cape May and much maligned but, to be honest, so long as you don't go rolling around in it, it's not that much of an issue.

I was driving through Eldora in the north of Cape May County and came across this awesome Sugar Maple Acer saccharum which literally glowed like a beacon beside the road. Sugar Maple is perhaps the most famous of North America's maples; it gives argueably the best autumn colour, is the primary source of maple syrup (as well as good wood for furniture) and is the leaf represented on the Canadian flag. Sadly for us in New Jersey, it is not really a tree of the coastal pine barrens and gravel plains so is rather scarce here, though it is planted often in gardens.

Another riot of colour from the same Sugar Maple at Eldora.

Black Gum Nyssa sylvatica is an abundant tree in Cape May's wet, bottomland woodlands and really comes into its own in fall.The leaves turn rich scarlet and look great against a blue sky (not that we had many of those of late!). Black Gum trees often lose their leaves earlier than other species, so help to draw the autumn colour season out even more.

Autumn colour can bring out the artist in a man! Reflections of Red Maples in a woodland pond at The Beanery caught my eye and made me think of other ways to enjoy this spectacle. The next two pictures are an experiment in cropping parts of photos of reflected autumn colour to create some intriguing images.

Of course, if I were really serious about modern art, I would probably call the first one 'Man with spoon' and the second one might be 'Hot Dog on Ice'. What do you think?