October 29, 2012

Fall is beautiful, even once foliage is gone

AMY IVY, Cornell Cooperative Extension

---- — The peak of fall color may be over, but there are still plenty of beautiful things to look at, especially if you can get up close. 

When I’m whizzing along the Northway on my way to work, only the showiest sights pop out. There is one spot I particularly like this time of the year, after most of the leaves have fallen. It’s a swampy area that has an expanding patch of winterberry, a native deciduous holly, growing alongside it. The berries are absolutely gorgeous right now, especially when the sun shines on them. They are bright red and easy to see from quite a distance. Soon they’ll be devoured by hungry birds so I’ve learned to pay special attention around this time each year so I don’t miss their annual show of color.

Many other beautiful sights are all around if you can get out into the woods. We are fortunate to have hiking/walking trails nearby on the Champlain Area Trails system,, as well as at Point Au Roche State Park and others.

Hunting season has begun, so I always wear a bright orange vest over my jacket, and our dog, my walking companion, wears one, too. Here are just some of the interesting things I’ve seen on my walks through the woods in the past two weeks.

Believe it or not, there is a shrub in bloom now. Witch hazel is native shrub that waits until its leaves turn yellow and start to fall before producing its annual flower show, sometime in mid- to late October. The bright yellow petals are delicate but appear in clusters so they aren’t too hard to spot if you’re looking. I find this beauty mostly along the edges of wooded trails and in hedgerows.

The recent rains have encouraged all kinds of mushrooms to emerge. I scan the ground as I walk, paying particular attention to rotting logs, old tree stumps and dying trees. They come in all sorts of shapes, colors and sizes and change from day to day. Mushrooms are only the tip of a much larger fungal organism growing inside the rotting wood. They play an important role in helping turn dead trees into soil through decomposition.

Mosses are enjoying all the moisture, too, and I’ve seen lush carpets of moss on boulders, fallen trees and in large mounds on the forest floor. Ferns often like the same conditions. I walked by a huge bolder last weekend that was carpeted in moss on its sides with polypody ferns growing like a toupee on top. 

One of my favorite ferns — the Christmas fern — is coming into its glory now. It is visible all summer but is often overshadowed by other ferns. These other ferns die back as cold weather sets in, but not the Christmas fern. It stays bright green into January and is beautiful after a light snowfall when its dark green fronds contrast so nicely with the white snow. If you look at a frond closely, you’ll notice that each little “leaflet” on the front is shaped like a Christmas stocking. That trick might help you remember its name. Also, it’s the only fern I know of that still looks great at Christmastime.

A lot of people get discouraged as fall progresses and the landscape becomes drab. But if you look closely, you can still find lots of beauty out there to enjoy, for at least awhile longer.

Amy Ivy is executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension, Clinton County. Office phone numbers: Clinton County, 561-7450; Essex County, 962-4810; Franklin County, 483-7403. Website: Email questions to