The color is coming

By Jim McGuire - Contributing columnist

I’m a seeing-is-believing type fellow. Not overly suspicious. But when considering certain things, I do often wait for proof before accepting that whatever is being proclaimed is actually true.

This is certainly the case when it comes to the comings and goings of seasons — especially autumn.

According to both the almanac and calendar, autumn has officially been underway for a couple of weeks. No doubt all pertinent astronomical data was properly interpreted and the resulting mathematics accurately calculated.

Yet from a practical standpoint, the streamside view from my cottage overlooking the Stillwater has remained little changed — being essentially the same view I had in early-September.

Hey, we’re already a week deep into October! Officialdom might claim it’s autumn, but everything is still too green to be convincing. For a guy who relies heavily on the philosophy of “don’t tell me, show me,” I want way more!

What I need is leaf color! Reds and yellows and oranges, oh my!

Forget the calendars and almanacs. Who cares about some invisible passing equinox? And never mind that several recent nights have been chilly enough to send you scrambling for an extra blanket!

For me, genuine autumn is only convincingly proclaimed by the leaves! Give me some serious leaf color and I’ll shout out that fall has arrived.

Several friends I’ve grumbled to about this year’s slow color onset blame it on all the rain we’ve had. Others say the problem has been the heat.

But in truth, weather — temperature and moisture — play less of a role than many think.

Color is revealed when the leaf loses its masking chlorophyll. As days begin to shorten the photosynthesis process gets interrupted. This triggers changes in the tree, the principal one being the growth of a corky membrane between the leaf stem and the branch. That chokes off the nutrient flow to the leaf. Chlorophyll production declines. The green begins to fade — and color that was there all along is revealed.

Hereabouts, autumn’s leaf color often begins with sumac — just a few scarlet-red leaves, startling among the familiar green monotone. Of course, sumac are the botanical equivalent of those earlybird folks who invariably show up an hour early for everything — church services, doctor appointments, concerts and movies. A jump-the-gun sumac is apt to flash a few red leaves in August.

Virginia creeper can be almost as eager. You might start to notice whirls of maroon woodbine twining in cool flame up the trunks of roadside trees anytime from mid-September onward.

Sumac and Virginia creeper are what I like to call the color before the color — a prelude to the real show. I wait for the hardwoods and more reliable favorites.

Shagbark hickories are one of the first, turning a rusty saffron.

Pawpaws answer the call in canary yellow.

And not far behind, a handful of little sugar maples will chime in with snatches of orange and yellow and red—colors so bright and lively they appear filled with inner light.

Embers to kindling to flame. A deliberate process of nuances and degrees, eventually delivering those patchwork scenes which emblazon the landscape.

Once the autumnal fire is lit, the color increases until area woodlands are a stunning mélange of red and gold, orange and burgundy, yellow, bronze, and amethyst — plus assorted shades of beige, ruby, lemon, vermilion, hazel, and salmon. Hues which have no name that even the finest artists can’t reproduce with their paints.

Some trees sport multi-colored leaves — edges one hue, centers another. Or one leaf might be crimson, another maroon.

The variations are endless.

Here along the river, the leaves are predominately sycamore, hackberry, willow, walnuts and box elder. And just this past week, a few subtle changes appeared.

On a couple of sycamores I noticed some rusty yellow leaves, not many, but enough to feel encouraged. Looking upstream and down, I saw only one of numerous bankside willows which appears to have decided to lose its chlorophyll and show some yellow. But one or two of the walnuts now have tiny clumps of pale-yellow leaves.

Otherwise, the leafy wall along both sides of the stream corridor remains resolutely green. Not bright spring green, nor deep midsummer green; more a tired, faded, used-up green, as befits a photosynthesis factory which has spent the last few months working at full production.

Nevertheless, I think I’m about to become a convert — to believe and acknowledge that autumn has finally arrived.

Besides, a little wait and the building anticipation will simply make the soon-to-come color all that much more dazzling.

By Jim McGuire

Contributing columnist

Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at

Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at