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Virginia creepers lead autumn extravaganza

Though it may vary with intensity and richness, late September is usually the time of peak autumn colors in the Northland's trees. Color tours abound, and we take our favorite drive to see this gasp of glow before the forests become bare in the c...

Though it may vary with intensity and richness, late September is usually the time of peak autumn colors in the Northland's trees. Color tours abound, and we take our favorite drive to see this gasp of glow before the forests become bare in the coming months. By mid-October, these same trees, so showy now, will be devoid of the attractive hues that dominate the scene at this time.
Yellows outnumber the other tones in both the total and variety of trees. This pigment, call xanthophyll, is present in the leaves all summer, but much less abundant than the food-making chlorophyll. When shorter days of the equinox arrive, the green matter begins to break up and the yellow, over-shadowed and not seen for months, now shines through.
Ash, poplar and birch lead the way with this golden glow, but they are quickly followed by sugar maple, basswood, willow and aspen. The orange color most often seen in cherry and sugar maple is also the result of conditions similar to yellow. This carotene, not as common as the others, adds a pleasant mixture to the autumn woods.
Reds are now dazzling in red maple, sumac and dogwood, and may also soon be seen in red oak. The making of this dynamic delight differs from the yellows and oranges. The bright pigment, known as anthocyanin, was not in the leaves all summer. Instead, it was recently made from the excess sugars built up in the last few weeks. Usually, the trees most red are in the sunlight. Here, the sugars can be produced with more intensity. Sugar maple, cherry, hazel and even aspen have at times been red, too.
We notice the trees in blaze now, but other plants also show some glow. The summer flowers of dogbane and milkweed put on yellow suits along the roadsides. And they are joined by the dark reds of raspberry and wild rose bushes. One of the brightest reds of all, now, is not a tree or bush, but a fast-growing vine -- the Virginia creeper.
Also known as woodbine, this opportunistic plant creeps over the ground until finding a vertical hold. Be it a fence, wall, sign or tree, Virginia creeper quickly advances upward.
Five leaves grow together in a unit that may reach the size of our hand. Within this foliage are the grasping tendrils and the dull-colored berries that we probably never see. But in fall, we all take note of this leafy vine as it becomes scarlet in the sunlight.
Many a home owner in the Northland shares a house with this twining plant. A bit of a bother at times, the vine is now a delightful part of the siding. Walls of other buildings, especially brick, and street side fences, including sections of I-35, have been taken over by this plant. Our daily commute becomes much more of a joy as we watch the plant turn red throughout these latter days of September.
With the demise of chlorophyll, the leaves are loosely held and will not last long. Though these colors of fall add much to our lives, they do little for the trees. Impending winds and rains will bring them down, and we'll need to wait until next year for a similar arboreal show.

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