Almost every time my husband and I travel to New England in the autumn I’m asked Are you going to leaf peep?
I ask them back Why would I go to New England to leaf peep? I live in the Ligonier Valley, in Pennsylvania, at the northern end of the Appalachian mountains, which is one of the best leaf-peeping regions in the country.
(Photo taken in Boston in autumn, 2013)
This is not to say that, when traveling home from New England, I don’t enjoy following the north-to-south progression of autumn’s brilliant foliage. I can simulate the leaf-change progression locally by traveling into the Ligonier Valley from atop Laurel Mountain, close to 3,000 foot elevation. Truly, I agree with George Eliot who wrote Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns, and Albert Camu, who wrote Autumn is a second spring when every leaf’s a flower.
Accordingly, autumn is the time at the green-theme Autumn Leaf Masquerade Ball, when deciduous tree leaves gradually remove their masks and show their true colors. Their mask is created by a green pigment, chlorophyll—a biomolecule essential for converting sunlight into energy during a process known as photosynthesis. Once this green mask is shed the true colors that have remained hidden, yellow and orange (called carotenoids), amaze all whose eyes view them.
Red and purple pigments (anthocyanins) are also buried under the green mask. These colors are revealed only when the sugar in leaves breaks down in late summer. The more prevalent the anthocyanins the more fiery the leaves will be…think red maples, red oaks, dogwood and sweet gum trees.
As autumn leaves unmask
A population of thousands
Caps their host trees in vibrant color
Symbolizing the harvest
A flame of love, passion and courage
Cheerful warmth, joy
A delightful visual gift
Given before the winter rest
After a summer of
Trees attending the Autumn Leaf Masquerade Ball include ash, birch, black cherry, sycamore, hickory, elm, pear, sugar maple and tulip poplar, oak, as well as the dogwood and sweet gum tree. They invite all to attend what George Cooper calls October’s Party:
October gave a party;
The leaves by hundreds came-
The Chestnuts, Oaks, and Maples,
And leaves of every name.
The Sunshine spread a carpet,
And everything was grand,
Miss Weather led the dancing,
Professor Wind the band.
Leaf brilliance is affected by several factors. The best color occurs following moderate temperature and precipitation in the summer, and chilly night temperatures with minimal rainfall in the autumn.
According to a study using published data…(the researchers) surveyed 262 tree species and found that the yellowness or redness of a tree’s autumn leaves correlates with the number of aphid species that attack it. …The connection between colours and herbivores raises questions exploring the hypothesis further.
However brilliant the autumn leaves are they are much more fatal than the monochrome greens of summer. How beautiful leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days, said John Burrough
October’s poplars are flaming torches lighting the way to winter, wrote Nova Bair, while Henry Ward Beecher wrote October is nature’s funeral month. Nature glories in death more than in life. The month of departure is more beautiful than the month of coming – October than May. Every green thing loves to
die in bright colors.
Why is it that the life before death is so much more colorful? Is it that we are more aware, our senses more keen, if we know we are dying? Is that the message of the colored leaves? And perhaps, at the moment of death, there is a keenness not given to those still living.
And thus is the bittersweet nature of autumn—it’s blessings and it’s curses, it’s celebration and it’s fears.
And now, my poor old woman, why are you crying so bitterly? It is autumn. The leaves are falling from the trees like burning tears- the wind howls. Why must you mimic them? Wrote Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan.
Nature vol 412 12 July 2001 pp 136; Reference: Proc R Soc Lond B 268, 1489-1493; 2001