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Autumn Color to Dazzle in Your Garden: Home

Maple leaf, late October at NYBG; Photo by Ivo M. Vermeulen
Maple Leaf in Late October at NYBG; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

We talk about pigments and shorter, cooler days when we discuss the seasonal change. During the fall, chlorophyll, the main player in spring and summer (the substance that makes the leaves nice and green), takes back stage to yellow carotenoids and red anthocyanins.

Leaves are in the business of making food. They take water from the ground (through their roots), carbon dioxide from the air and with the energy from the sun, they create glucose (a sugar). Chrolophyll facilitates this process called photosynthesis which manufactures the sugars (food) for the tree.

As days get shorter the trees start preparing for winter. Many plants stop making food in the fall and begin to shut down for the winter. As the production of chlorophyll slows down, other colors in the leaves come to the fore. Yellow pigments that have always existed in the leaf become more prominent. You will notice that yellow pigments tend to stay the same year after year, while reds and purples vary in their intensity and depend on seasonal factors. Why is this?

Red and violet pigments are formed when sugars become trapped in the leaves. During sunny days sugars are produced in the leaves. In the cool fall nights, the veins in the leaves close up and prevent the sugars from moving into the tree. This excess of sugar encourages the production of anthocyanins.

What then is the recipe for good fall color?  In the spring there needs to be plenty of precipitation for the formation of big healthy leaves; in the fall bright, sunny days and cool nights.

Golden fall color in Thain Forest at NYBG

Most woody plants and herbaceous perennials go dormant during the winter time. (Evergreens slow down, but do not go dormant.) Autumn is the time when many plants shed their leaves and shut down for the season. Leaves become damaged over time from weather, insects and disease - this seasonal cycle is an important part of the plant's maintenance and rejuvenation process.

As the leaves fall to the ground they decay, and are incorporated into the soil as organic matter. Insects, bacteria and fungi that help break down the organic matter depend on leaves for food and shelter. Nutrients go back into the soil to be reused by further generations of trees. This process is an important part of the forest's ecosystem. Nature teaches us how to recycle. The autumn display is a wonderful celebration and a vibrant announcement of this process.

Trees: Yellow Foliage

Botanical Name

Common Name

Carya
hickory
Betula
birch
Fagus
beech
Ginkgo
ginkgo
Liriodendron
tulip tree
Acer saccharinum
silver maple
Acer saccharum
sugar maple
Acer palmatum
Japanese maple

 Trees: Red Foliage

Botanical Name

Common Name

Cornus
dogwood
Oxydendrum
sourwood
Liquidamber
sweetgum
Acer rubrum
red maple
Nyssa sylvatica
blackgum
Quercus rubra
Northern red oak
Acer palmatum
Japanese maple
Acer saccharum
sugar maple

Shrubs: Yellow foliage

Botanical Name

Common Name

Lindera
spicebush
Hamamelis
witch-hazel
Clethra
summersweet
Calycanthus
allspice
Aesculus parviflora
bottlebrush buckeye

 Shrubs: Red foliage

Botanical Name

Common Name

Aronia arbutifolia
red chokeberry
Disanthus
disanthus
Hydrangea quercifolia
oakleaf hydrangea
Rosa rugosa
rugose rose
Rhus
sumac
Vaccinum
blueberry
Rhododendron vaseyi
pinkshell azalea
Itea virginica
Virginia sweetspire
Viburnum
viburnum, particularly mapleleaf, doublefile and arrowood
Cornus sericea
red-osier dogwood

Shrubs: Orange/Red Foliage

Botanical Name

Common Name

Fothergilla
fothergilla
Spirea
spirea, particularly thunberg
Enkianthus campanulatus
red-vein enkianthus
Rhododendron calendulaceum
flame azalea

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