Monday 5 December 2016

Country Matters: Another swirl of colour in the trees of autumn

Joe Kennedy

Published 09/10/2016 | 02:30

AUTUMN: The leaves are changing colour and are beginning to fall Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
AUTUMN: The leaves are changing colour and are beginning to fall Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

The wonderful autumn weather has meant a more gradual seasonal change in the landscape of trees.

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But when the colours begin to take hold the effect promises to be stunning. The resulting painted woodland scenes could see prolonged change well into November, some experts predict. From Kashmir to Kerry, the northern hemisphere will enjoy a symphony of foliage that North Americans feel is unique to them with the technicolour splendour of New England and the provinces of eastern Canada.

Spring rains and the later abundant sunshine have brought about a great growing season and trees have amassed a sugar surplus in their leaves. So why do they start to change colour and then let them fall and scatter with the wind? Is it so that they can survive and get through the winter? The whole story is something of a mystery.

One reason may be because tree roots don't absorb cold winter water easily. Dropping leaves gets rid of moisture and also built-up toxins. Before the shedding begins, the sugars and nutrients go back into the trees for storage and what remains after the chlorophyll goes are the natural antioxidants, yellow and orange carotenoids and tomato-red anthocyanin.

The seasonal colours, then, are not really signs of deterioration but of detoxing and preparing for a new beginning in the spring to come. All plants have to survive winter. Annuals disappear and continue as seeds. Perennials keep buds near the ground. A tree has to keep its buds on high where there is light for new leaf life in spring.

A poet and anthropologist named Loren Eisley asked if men could disintegrate like autumn leaves, dropping sustenance like chlorophyll, would not our attitude to death be different? "Suppose we saw ourselves burning like maples in a golden autumn?"

The naturalist Richard Mabey says we all find auguries in the blaze of the fall, prophesies of the rigours of winter, reminders of our own mortality. The dying poet Keats found some comfort in the season's "mellow fruitfulness", a more warming time than the "chilly green of spring". He wrote To Autumn in September 1819, aware he was dying of tuberculosis, yet finding something uplifting in the season.

Maybe it says the truth about autumn is that it is not about decay at all but of preparing to meet a new beginning. George Orwell, unexpectedly perhaps, produces his autumnal simile in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, A couple plunges into woodland. The girl wades to her knees in fallen leaves and exclaims, "they're like gold". "Fools' gold," says the man, cynically. "They're just the colour of tomato soup."

But the ripening of tomatoes, fruits of the sun and source of protective antioxidants, may be analogous to what happens to leaves in autumn.

The annual tints of the season of phantom-change are usually led by beeches, sycamores and hazels. The ash is first to shed its mantle, the last to replace it. The task of sweeping and gathering begins in gardens and parks inevitably as do the compost piles grow to break down and nourish the earth once again.

Sunday Independent

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