Nature Notes: The Painted Landscape

Fall at its most colorful moment

    It’s getting to be that time of year again, that time when we love fall at its most colorful moment. Fall has been creeping up on us since the last day of summer. Summer birds have been leaving for the south and northern birds have been stopping by on their way south while others have been arriving to spend the winter here.

    Spring is wonderful, too. It’s the time when the flowers come out — the shads, dogwoods, beach plums, bird’s-foot violets, lupines, mountain laurels, and so on. Fall has varicolored leaves, but also pretty flowers to boot — the asters and goldenrods. If you do crossword puzzles, as I do obsessively, you will know immediately that a five-letter word for “fall flower” is aster. For some unknown reason the 10 or so different species of white, blue, and purple asters on eastern Long Island invariably wait until the middle of August before they dare to bloom.

    The many local goldenrods start flowering at about the same time. First comes the early goldenrod at the end of July, then the blue-stemmed, rough-leaved gray, Canada, sweet, grass-leaved, gray, lance-leaved, and other goldenrods, ending with the ubiquitous and perhaps most faithful one, the seaside goldenrod.

    If it weren’t for the goldenrods and asters, the bees and butterflies would find themselves with little to do during the last month and a half of summer. If it weren’t for the seaside goldenrods with the wonderful scientific name, Solidago sempervirens, the migratory butterflies, in particular the monarch, would have little reason to visit Long Island on their way south to their wintering grounds in the mountains of Mexico. Ironically perhaps, the seaside goldenrods have never been more splendid, but this September and October have been almost completely monarch-less.

    While the asters and goldenrods paint the lower layers of the landscape, the trees paint the upper layers, and beyond them the mostly blue sky highlights the leaves and the flowers. Fall is far along, as the trees with leaves that turn the earliest, the horse chestnuts, tupelos, shads, black locusts, and sassafras, have already parted with most of their leaves, and the dogwoods, which have been blood red for almost a month, are trying to shed their leaves before they all turn an ugly brown. Pray thee, the oaks and hickories come along just in time to continue the display. Yes, New England, the Adirondacks, and the Appalachians are sought out year after year for their panorama of different hues that stretches from one end of the horizon to the other, but Long Island is not all that bad as far as fall color goes. It’s generally fine, absent early northeasters or tropical storms such as Irene at the end of August in 2011.

    The oaks — scarlet, black, white, chestnut, pin, and bear — are also vying for the beauty prize. The scarlet and pin oaks are almost always the winners. They generally peak in the last week of October and begin shedding while the pumpkins are at their orangest, just before Halloween and the first hard frost. Don’t rule out the vermillion and burgundy reds of the Virginia creepers and that old bugaboo, poison ivy. It and the poison sumac are the prettiest when they are the most poisonous. This year they could peak earlier as they are well on their way to achieving full color.

    Each year, come fall, Kurt Weill’s “September Song” becomes my anthem. It’s a sad lie, but sad can be beautiful. When its last note has ended, I turn to another fall song, one that is uplifting, “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go. . . .” I’m sure that most of you can sing, leastwise, hum the rest.