November 5, 2012

Fall a time for reading leaves

Almost all the leaves have fallen, but some still linger on. 

Different species of trees turn color and drop their leaves at different times. Fall is a good time to look at broad hillsides and see what is growing where, based on when and what color the leaves turn.

The tamarack, also called larch, is a good example. During the summertime, this conifer looks like any other spruce or fir from a distance. But this native tree is the only deciduous conifer we have. Deciduous trees drop their leaves or needles in the fall, and conifers bear cones. Right now, in early November, tamaracks are bright yellow. They definitely stand out against all the evergreen conifers, including spruce, fir and pine. Soon, their needles will drop and they’ll look like dead spruces, so much so that they are often mistakenly cut down in winter.

Beeches and oaks are shade trees that hold on to their colored leaves much longer than any other. Beeches turn various shades of tan, bronze and russet and are easy to spot in the woods in the middle of winter because they are the only ones that have any leaves remaining. The leaves drop slowly throughout the winter and are often scattered over a layer of snow. They can become a bit of a nuisance on cross-country ski trails when they cause your skis to brake intermittently as you try to glide along. 

Some leaves even stay attached until just before the new leaves emerge in early spring.

There are two main groups of oaks, and the easiest way to tell them apart is by looking at their leaves. Even if the leaves have fallen, you can usually find plenty on the ground beneath the tree to help you identify them. Oak leaves contain tannins that help them resist decomposing so they remain intact for much longer than most leaves on the forest floor.

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