The Second Peak Of The Fall Colors

Oct 26, 2020

The fall colors may be past peak, but there is still a forest of color to view, you just have to know where to look. At least that’s the case the Masked Biologist makes in this week’s wildlife matters.

Last week my family and I took a drive to Wausau, and I couldn’t help but marvel at how much the autumn colors had changed in the last couple of weeks. The nightly news is no longer covering the color peak as a nightly story; they have declared us past peak and have moved on to covering winter weather and other matters. Now granted, in terms of fall color, we may be past peak, but that depends on your perspective. It won’t be very long, another month or so, and the forest color will be white. Between now and then, the color will continually fade and turn to shades of brown. But right now? I have to say I love the colors right now. We have shades of red, maroon, gold, and green. The colors are more muted, but are still quite complimentary. The blackberry plants turn red this time of year, what Aldo Leopold referred to as the red lanterns of autumn. While some trees are completely barren of leaves, you can see that red maple and oak trees are still holding their leaves, which are shades of dark red and maroon. On the rolling hillsides we have aspen trees that are in the process of shedding whatever yellow leaves may have survived the year’s first snowstorm, and in the lower areas we have stands of smoky gold tamarack trees surrounding the swamps and bogs.

While the bright flashy-leafed trees get a lot of attention in fall, conifer trees can easily escape notice because they are so steadfast, at least to the casual observer. Even though it’s fall we have a variety of conifers that stand fast with their green needles.

As a kid, I grew up calling everything a pine tree. Now that I have been educated and am constantly corrected, I know better. All pine trees are conifers, or trees that produce cones, but not all conifers are pines. Here in the Northwoods, conifers include a wide range of species; a few examples are red pine, white pine, tamarack, cedars, hemlock, yew, white spruce, black spruce, and balsam fir. When writing, I clumsily dance around naming these trees, referring to them always as conifers.

Most of our conifers are evergreens. However, if you have been out in the woods winterizing your cabin,  hunting, hiking, or just enjoying the weather, maybe you have looked up and noticed that many of our evergreen trees have had a lot of brown needles, especially the needles closer to the trunk and lower to the ground. No one ever really talks about it, but needles are leaves too, and conifers have to shed them just like any other tree. There is a shed every fall and spring; when needles get old, they become less efficient, and the tree sheds them—oldest first. So the youngest needles are near the tips of branches and the top of the tree. They age as the branches get longer and add new needles, and they get more shade, less sunlight, and productivity drops off. The growth and shed of needles twice a year makes sure the trees stay healthy and ever green.

I said most of our conifers are evergreens. Every rule has an exception, and the exception to the evergreen conifers is the tamarack. They are somewhat of an anomaly, our only deciduous coniferous tree. They shed their needles every fall and grow new ones every spring. They tend to escape notice in the rest of the year but every fall the needles turn a splendid smoky gold color before they fall off.

So now that you have given some thought to our October woods, I say make the most of it. Enjoy the second peak of autumn color. Enjoy the crisp cold air. Soon enough the winter comes, and the woods will be white.