Autumn Foliage: the Encore

The flaming foliage that fueled the tourist industry a month ago is now in the business of soil enrichment. The thick layer of leaves on the forest floor is already decomposing and adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil. The annual cycle is nearly complete, and all will benefit, from fungi and amphibians to the massive oaks and the wildlife that depend on them. Is there a better example of recycling? Doubt it.

Fortunately, Mother Nature is kind enough to return with an encore performance, giving nature lovers one more peak at colorful leaves before winter. Several tree species, the beeches, oaks, aspens and larches included, don’t show off their fall colors until late October and early November. This past week I photographed Quaking Aspen and American Beech in local woodlots to illustrate.

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Mature Aspen

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Aspen

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Beech, with a background of aspen

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Aspen along the edge of a small stream

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Beech on aspen

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Aspen leaf adrift in the surface film of a small stream

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Mature aspen, with years of snow and ice damage reflected in an irregular crown

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Forest Gold – American Beech

Blog posts reveal passions. In my case, one such passion is the Fagaceae. This is a plant family of about 600 trees and shrubs that includes the oaks, beeches and chestnuts. My fondness for the family is rooted in personal experiences with many of the species, in the context of several disciplines, and the countless attributes which those species possess. Exceptional timber, wildlife, landscape and aesthetic values. for example, led the National Arbor Day Foundation to select Quercus, the oaks, as our national tree (based on a nationwide, popular vote). 

Typically, species in these plant groups leaf out late in the spring and are among the last to change color and drop in autumn. It is not unusual for Beech, as well as some of the Oaks, to retain leaves well into the winter.

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Beech leaves after a Halloween (late October) snowfall

For this post, I’ve chosen a common, but threatened, species to illustrate the Fagaceae in autumn: American Beech (Fagus grandifolia).

Most of the colorful foliage in this photo is associated with small beech trees that have sprouted from the roots (root suckers) of larger trees  that are declining or dead. American Beech has been devastated throughout its geographic range by a disease complex called beech bark disease. When trees reach 8-10 inches or so in diameter, they are susceptible to a non-native beech scale insect which predisposes trees to the lethal effects of beech bark canker fungi. The large, overstory trees in the photo are mostly Sugar Maple and Eastern Hemlock.

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Beech understory of root sucker origin in a mixed hardwood-hemlock woodland

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Beech understory, in association with Red Oak, Eastern Hemlock and White Pine.

The bark of Beech is typically smooth and gray. The rough bark of this young tree is evidence of bark disease.

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Young American Beech tree

Peak fall foliage colors of American Beech (2)

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Fall foliage, American Beech

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Fall foliage, American Beech

This is the soft-spiny bur and three-sided nut of American Beech, an uncommon sight, even when trees were healthy. Beech only produces significant crops at 2-8-year intervals, and not until about age 40. Now, many trees  decline and die before they can produce significant quantities of seed. Countless animal species consume this nutritious fruit, called hard mast, including deer, bear, elk, squirrels, grouse, turkeys and Blue Jays.

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Beech fruit (on a Beech leaf); usually two, three-sided nuts in a soft-spiny bur

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.