Nature Walk/ Colors of change

European spindle bush fruit (photos by Anita Barbour)

European spindle bush fruit (photos by Anita Barbour)

An autumn as drab as this one may be a dismal disappointment, but an astute observer could have seen it coming. Throughout this growing season, deciduous trees suffered a slow, incremental agony. Demons, from drought to mold to mites, savaged and dulled their leaves. Strong fall colors were short-lived to virtually absent, especially the reds.

Swamp rose hips

Swamp rose hips

Even before the oft-vaunted Columbus Day peak, the lackluster leaf show wound down, and before Halloween it seemed to be all over.

This low-key look seems to have become the new norm, closer to a European color season. The East Asian uplands and Northeastern North America have long been nature’s fall fashion plates. Possibly the causes are related to climate change, spurred by multiple culprits, including pollution, soil degradation and erratic precipitation patterns.

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As more leaves fell from their branches and coated the ground, we noticed something bright and beautiful against the backdrop of browns and tans and grays — reds! Most of the reds were not leaves, but rather berries — all kinds of berries in all kinds of habitats.

Out our bay window in the patchwork of wild and planted shrubbery, barberries (Berberis thunbergii) and burning bushes (Euonymus spp.) were ablaze. Their scarlet fruits were dazzlingly set off by their sparse, lingering leaves of pink, maroon and pale green. Whether the backdrop was the umber brush or the blue sky, all was a harmony of happy hues.

Winged spindle bush berries

Winged spindle bush berries

A short drive into the near neighborhood brought different habitats into view — roadside swamps and ditches with red winterberries (Ilex verticillata), and forest edges with orange-fruited bittersweet vines (Celastrus scandens) festooning dead and living trees.

These scenes reminded us of our last canoe outing of the year, about two weeks earlier at the Great Vly. The nearly constant wind over this mile-long bog lake had stripped away the leaves of many trees and shrubs growing in the shallows of the wetland. Here, the reds of swamp rose hips (Rosa palustris) and the ubiquitous winterberry added visual fire and inner warmth to that chilly day.

Back home after our roadside berry excursion, looking out the window at the berries in the waning light, we noticed a female cardinal in the big European burning bush. She blended in so well that we hadn’t seen her until she moved slightly, and then flew off. Had she been eating berries?

Winterberry shrub

Winterberry shrub

Then it occurred to us that wherever we had admired this autumn’s wild berry crop, there had been birds. The most spectacular had been the gathering flock of redwing blackbirds at the Vly, sweeping in great arcs in and out of the reeds and shrub thickets, almost settling down, only to rise, turn, and swoop down again.

Birds and berries form an ecological union. The shrubs’ berries feed the birds, and the birds spread and sow the seeds that grow into more shrubs. It all comes full circle, year after year, good color season or bad. Come fall, trees and shrubs discard their foliage. The work of leaves is done when woody plants are ready to rest through the winter. But at the same time of year, as they turn from green to red, berries’ work is just beginning.

As the Earth’s axis tilts further, another color begins to show, as it typically does. White is breaking out, first as frost. Soon there will be snow, and maybe ice. Winter’s most pronounced climate change around here seems to be the disappearance, the scarcity, of ice. I’m sure that loss of winter ice will affect other seasons in ways science may not be able to predict. Will springs be earlier, later, wetter, drier? Or summers hotter, cooler, drier, wetter, shorter, longer?

Come September and October one thing is certain. People again will come looking for beautiful red and yellow leaves. Those glorious autumns of old may be getting rare, but one is coming sooner or later. More to the point in caring for our planet is what we must learn from the new patterns in local nature that inevitably emerge and accumulate season by season, year by year.

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