Walking in a deciduous woods in late September is such a delight. Besides the pleasant temperatures and mostly no mosquitoes, there is a great deal happening here.

Recent rains have brought out a thriving mushroom crop and as I walk, I see red waxy caps (hygrocybe), milk mushrooms (lactarius), fly agaric (amanita), scaly-caps (pholiota) and an abundance of honey mushrooms (armillaria). They crowd around the bases of trees and stumps, but with this many, I also see then growing right out on the trail.

But as I look at the ground along this route, I also see lots of fallen leaves gracing the forest floor. The complete leaf drop does not occur for a couple more weeks (usually around the middle of October), but many leaves have already been brought down.

Looking up, I see that most are still clinging to the branches and many have not yet changed to fall colors.

Among those that have changed here in the forest, yellow is most common. Without the direct sunlight to affect the coloring, leaves of these deciduous trees respond to the shortening days of autumn by breaking down the green chlorophyll that was present during the warm months.

“Red foliage and fruits provide for a "double red" - an added autumn attraction.”

With this pigment gone, the yellow pigment (xanthophyll) that was also present all summer is now able to be seen. Trees with yellow leaves are many and varied.

As I walk, I go beneath the large basswoods and sugar maples (though usually yellow, some are orangish when in the open). Others wearing yellow now are birches, poplars, willows, ashes, mountain-maple, cherry, ironwood, juneberry, elderberry, aspen, beaked hazels and the larger red oaks.

Continuing my walk, I reach the edge of the woods and step out from this arboreal world. Here, in sites that are mostly sunlit, I find many trees that are now holding red leaves. These include red maples, red oaks (usually, the younger ones), pin cherry, dogwoods, sumacs and highbush cranberries.

Besides these trees, red appears on the vines of Virginia creepers and the shrubs of roses, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and American hazel. (It is interesting that while the American hazels take on red in the fall, those of the beaked hazels will be yellow, even if they grow next to each other.)

Unlike yellow, the red pigment (anthocyanin) is not present in the leaves all summer, but is produced from excess sugars in late summer and fall. It is believed to protect leaf cells from too much sun — sort of a "sunscreen."

A highbush cranberry on a day in late September. Note the red leaf and red berries. (Photo by Larry Weber)
A highbush cranberry on a day in late September. Note the red leaf and red berries. (Photo by Larry Weber)

It is the blending of yellows and reds (with some purples, oranges and greens) that many of us go out to see each year — one of nature’s annual attractions. But as I look at this red scene, I note a couple of small trees that are holding “double reds."

Highbush cranberries and staghorn sumacs both are decorated with reddish foliage, but they hold clusters of red berries as well. These small trees differ greatly.

Highbush cranberry is a type of viburnum and has open groups of juicy berries.

The sumac is of a completely different family of plants, but also holds red berries at this time. The tiny berries of sumac are in tight clusters; a furry covering holds a hard seed.

But now, red foliage and fruits provide for a "double red" — an added autumn attraction. Other red-leaf trees may have fruits now, but not red. Some with red fruits do not have similar leaf color.

But now along roadsides, we can see "double reds" of highbush cranberry and staghorn sumac.

Larry Weber
Larry Weber