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Red leaves of shrubs and vines

The unloved poison ivy is actually quite beautiful in the fall. The reds make it more visible and thus more avoidable. (Photos by Larry Weber)1 / 3
Virginia creeper grows on buildings, fences and trees.2 / 3
Sumac leaves are maybe the brightest of all in autumn.3 / 3

This year the autumnal equinox was on Sept. 23. We entered autumn during these last few days. The weather of the previous week, the last week of summer, was more like this previous season. Now with the time of darkness outlasting that of light, we will proceed through the rest of September more in an autumn mode.

Migrants continue to pass through. Besides the large and loud flocks of Canada geese passing over, we have a regular raptor movement. Whether it's the large eagles, buteo hawks and turkey vultures or the much smaller accipiters and falcons, we'll notice them on their southbound trek.

More silent, and often at night, is the flight of smaller songbirds. Pausing on their route, they frequently show up in our yards, parks and woods. Warbler waves, now more consisting of yellow-rumped and palm warblers, are being replaced by the migration of thrushes and sparrows. These diverse brown birds will continue to be in the region for weeks to come.

Thanks to the recent rains, September has been much wetter than normal and the forest floor still holds a variety of mushrooms. And late-September fungi proves to be just as interesting as the earlier ones. I've noticed that the sunflowers and goldenrods of the roadsides are not as bright as previously seen; many have gone to the next phase and are now producing seeds. The asters still show their rays of white, blue and purple. The frost has not yet slowed these hardy plants. But with the demise of colors from many late-season wildflowers, their place is taken by colors from another site. Almost on cue and certainly anticipated, the trees give a show of their own that often causes us to forget that of the flowers.

The fall foliage is one of nature's performances that we will stop and view every year. Almost as an encore to the green backdrop that we have been seeing during the last five months, we now find that there is plenty more to see among these leafy food-making organs. Responding to the days of less light and more darkness, the green substance (chlorophyll) breaks down in the leaves; no more food-making to take place this year. In the absence of the green, the yellows (xanthophyll) are now visible. This pigment was present in the leaves throughout the summer, but with the greater amount of green, it did not show until now. And yes, the yellows are abundant. The leaves of most deciduous trees will reveal this yellow color before dropping off later in the season. Some of the more noticeable trees of yellow now are birch, poplar, willow, ash, elm, basswood and maples. (Red and sugar maples will frequently show other colors as well.)

Yellow is only part of the foliage show and we frequently seek other brighter colors.The reds and oranges also in the trees are hard to not see. Maples usually provide these additional colors that we now seek. I find red maples are more likely to be bright red, often the entire tree. Their well-known cousins, the sugar maples, are blended with a mixture of yellows, oranges and reds. One other large tree, red oak, can live up to its name at this time with leaves taking on a scarlet color. (I find younger red oaks are more likely to get this crimson glow than the larger ones.) Also, I've discovered that reds in any of the other flora are likely to be in a sunlit site. Here in these lighted locations, the trees will take the excess sugars in the leaves and convert it into the red pigment (anthocyanin). This is unlike the passive appearance of yellows. Perhaps it is due to these sunlit places that I find reds more common than yellows among small woody plants, the shrubs, bushes and vines that grow here.

During some recent walking and biking on some September days, I found many small trees and shrubs holding red leaves. Such colors filled the branches of dogwoods, cherry, hazel, highbush cranberry (actually a viburnum) and, maybe brightest of all, sumac. Bushes here that are best known by their berries also had red leaves: raspberry, blackberry and blueberry. Not to be outdone were also a couple of vines: Virginia creeper (also called woodbine) and the lesser-loved poison ivy. While the five-leaved Virginia creeper grows up on buildings, fences and trees, adding a red glow, the three-leaved poison ivy is more spread out on the ground. Were it not for such red leaves now, these vines would go largely unnoticed. Maybe the same goes for much of the foliage glowing in the woods at this time. These colors will last only a week or two before dropping and we will enter the next phase of colors from the fall flora foliage.

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o