Everything along the highway south of Duluth was a dismal November gray when I started out on a road trip to visit my favorite cousins; out of touch since the last family wedding two years ago. The skeletons of trees, the low, damp clouds, even the road itself conspired to be gray. A few patches of oaks held their coppery leaves, but they were subdued without the sun. As I sped south, though, I felt like time was moving backward. The fall phenology of color change and leaf-off that I’ve been observing at home unfolded in reverse beside my humming wheels.
First, golden triangles jumped back onto the twigs of a few aspens and clung there fluttering the breeze. Next, I started noticing some of the planted trees and shrubs—weeping willows in yards and something burgundy in the fence lines—still dressed in color.
By the time I got to the city of St. Paul, I’d traveled back a few weeks at least, to the time when sumacs blazed not just with red, but with the full rainbow of green, yellow, and orange as well. When did the sumacs turn in Northern Wisconsin? Early October was my best guess, 3 to 4 weeks ago. In town, other trees held their leaves, too. Brown skeletons were still evident in the post-Halloween landscape, too, but they didn’t dominate like up north.
Emerging on the south side of The Cities, I found myself back in a skeleton land. The city must be a little heat island, tricking plants into a longer growing season. The introduced species, especially, tend to stay green longer. Buckthorn, for example, doesn’t even really have fall colors. Its leaves just go from green to dead. I also suspect that even the native species of planted city trees don’t have quite the same genetics as their wild cousins. The timing of fall leaf drop is affected by both nature and nurture; their genes and their local environment.
By the time I’d reached my first destination in Ames, IA, the changes were drastic. Some trees, especially the ashes, were bare. Ashes don’t have any tolerance for cold. Their strategy is to leaf out late in the spring after all chance of frost is gone, and then drop those leaves early in the fall. But the backyard of my family friends sported a highbush cranberry with fully emerald foliage and clusters of scarlet berries. The big, old oaks in their neighborhood had dropped just a fraction of their canopies. And a katydid sang as we chewed the fat. Many other trees that could never grow up north (i.e. redbud and sycamore) also held their foliage. I have nothing to compare with their timing. We walked around a nearby park, and I shed my sweatshirt in favor of a tank top. Just 300 miles south, and it felt like I was back in early October.
When I headed south again the next day, the sweatshirt never went on. With an hour to kill, I took an early morning walk in a nearby woodland. Chickadees gave their gargle calls in an effort to sort out the dominance hierarchy in their winter flocks (that, at least, was the same). Then a bright flash of color caught my eye. A huge patch of yellow-orange chicken of the woods mushrooms glowed along a fallen log. They were fresh and juicy, still young, and not riddled with beetles. Those same mushrooms peaked just before Labor Day in my woods. Here in central Iowa, their season must be extended by at least two months!
So few trees lined my view on the way through Kansas that I could hardly judge their progress into autumn. Arriving in the town of Atchison, though, (having driven across four of the USDA’s plant hardiness zones) I found maples in full color, other trees still green, mums and impatiens blooming in my cousin’s flower bed, tomatoes still ripening on her vines, and a yellow butterfly dancing around the park. The 79 degree day just about melted me. Not all trees are benefitting from the warm weather, though. A few ashes and maples have lost their leaves in solidarity with their northern cousins.
The chilly mornings and warm sunshine here in Kansas remind me of early September in Northern Wisconsin. They are having a heat wave, the locals tell me, but even so the average temperatures for early November are 15 degrees warmer in Kansas than in Hayward.
A recent article in the New York Times highlighted new research showing that fall color displays may actually lengthen for a while—as warm weather lasts longer into the year—before they eventually collapse with the loss of our most colorful species when they are forced farther north by the changing climate.
Happily, my visit felt like driving back in time in more ways than one. My cousin hasn’t changed a bit…except that the little girl with light brown curls is her daughter instead of her little sister (boy do they look alike!). Our conversations, too, were as easy, winding and distracted as ever, jumping from one thought to the next. There are some things that neither distance nor climate can change.
Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at http://cablemuseum.org/natural-connections-book/.
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.