Monday, November 4, 2019

Colors of the season

By Beth Sullivan

A friend of mine, who knows my woods-wandering ways, sent me this little thought that had been circulating on Facebook:
“An essay in the Old Farmers’ Almanac divided autumn into four distinct foliage phases. The first is Scarlet Fever, when the first trees to change are the red swamp maples and sumacs. Next comes Conflagration, the riot of all colors at once. This is followed by the Empire of Gold, as the reds and oranges fall away, leaving the birches and beeches to hold the field. Finally comes the Tannery, where the oaks, the final holdouts, turn russet. “

Those of us who are observers of nature, cycles, and seasons, have consciously or subconsciously known this. As we walk or even drive along wooded lanes, we are aware of the changes in colors and tones of the landscape. We notice the light as it changes not only hour by hour, but season by season. To me, the later afternoon sunlight in the autumn is the absolute best. There is something that intensifies the clarity of colors. Maybe, in part, it is the beautiful blue of the sky for contrast with the warmer tones of the foliage.
At the edge of a swamp, the red maples show color first, along with blueberry bushes below them.

Sumac is a native shrub that provides beautiful red foliage and great food for wildlife.

It starts with red

When I first read this, we were already well into the Scarlet Fever. There are areas nearby that are wetlands, and that is where the change seems to start. The red swamp maples are the first to show color, and that color is truly spectacular. There is something so eye-catching about a stand of red, marking a swamp or lake edge, where those maples reflect their color in the standing water. In the understory and thickets, there is nothing more striking than the native highbush blueberries and sumacs that are far more pure, natural red than the invasive, non-native “burning bush” euonymous.

The Conflagration slips up on us quickly. The reds just seem to shift into oranges. The sugar maples, that are sadly becoming more scarce here in southern CT, tend to go to a more orange-red. The sassafras trees tend to grow in colonies as they are somewhat clonal. Their foliage is all shades from red through orange to gold. A group of sassafras along a path, or near the shore line, tend to light up the landscape. Once in a while you will find a big, old sassafras tree in the woods, solitary and outstanding. Its leaves tend to hold on longer than some of the surrounding trees, and they wear their colors tall and proudly.
The late afternoon sun provides the most dramatic lighting.

The Woodlot glows with a clear yellow tone in the understory of spicebush, as well as from the canopy.

This big hickory is like a golden torch dominating the landscape.

An empire of gold

The Empire of Gold seems to have the largest number of members and lasts longer. That’s where we were when I began writing this. You can’t beat the late afternoon sun, slanting through the woodlands that are all tones of yellows and golds, from canopy to forest floor. The ferns have gone to yellow along with wild sarsaparilla. In the mid-level, the spicebush and sweet pepper bush create an eye level haze of warm color. The birches begin to fill the canopy. The hickories can tower like tall torches of gold, and at the same time, they are pelting down their nuts in abundance. The beeches are fickle. Sometimes they hold onto their green for a very long time. Some go to yellow and others go to a lovely beige and even hold a few of their leaves through the winter time. Another yellow to look for requires a sharper eye. The spidery yellows of the witch hazel flowers are beginning to show up. They are easiest to notice once the leaves are off.

Thanks to the severe wind and rain events of the last week, the woodlands have been stripped, pretty early, of all leaves except on some beeches and the oaks. We are in the Tannery now. I think it is an injustice to call all oaks russet or brown. The colors are so beautifully subtle, and varied. Some of the oaks will go to gold-/brown. Others orange-brown, and still others are truly a deep scarlet-brown. Drive down a road with a far horizon, or view of some hillsides. There are many areas where the forest is still in leaf, and almost all of the trees are oaks. Notice the variation. I am not sure an artist could capture all the shades of color of the Tannery.

We must not forget the evergreens that punctuate the forest or make large statements of their own. We will notice them most when the other colors are gone, and they alone stand out against the grays and white of winter.

Cherish the colors of the season.
The oaks at Cottrell Marsh show all the shades in the Tannery.

When the leaves finally fall, the spidery yellow flowers of Witch Hazel are easier to find.

In the winter, we rely on the evergreens to be our color focus in a landscape of gray and white.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.


  1. Love how you expanded on the Farmer's Almanac. Beautifully written.

  2. Beautifully written indeed, and beautifully observed. I have just recently (at 75) begun to focus on and cherish the changing light on leaves and water--a kind of micro-gallery of mental snapshots. It is an unexpected gift of joy that helps the psyche withstand the losses that come with age.