October’s Good Story

Trees with fall color


October is a golden month – perhaps the most wonderful month to explore our trails, woodlands, wetlands, and lakeshores. Mosquitos are vanishing, mornings are crisp, and as the season progresses, nature’s way gives life to the words of Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde: “And all at once, summer collapsed into fall.”

The eye-catching transformation of leaves into shades of fiery crimson and shimmering gold lure me again and again onto backcountry trails that truly confirm “summer collapsed into fall.” October is also the month I think of my favorite sentence penned by poet Gary Snyder in his classic essay, “The Practice of the Wild.”

“The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when back home.”

As a nature-hungry, trail-trotting, critter-chasing toddler back in the rural hills of Connecticut, I knew it was Mother Nature and Jack Frost that painted the leaves in a wide array of colors and then frosted the edges with the wave of a magical wand. I still enjoy that childhood story, but every now and then someone asks me why leaves change color. That’s where this really “good story” of October begins.

Chemical changes that take place within tree leaves is a far less romantic tale than that magical wand creating an instant color change. Science confirms that from early spring through the waning days of summer, the green leaves of hardwood trees serve as the tree’s “factories,” where most of the food necessary for tree growth is manufactured. Those factories contain chlorophyll, which makes tree leaves various shades of green.

At about the same time that Ruby-throated Hummingbirds abandon our feeders, the changes in the length of daylight and temperature “tell” the leaves to stop their food-making process. As the chlorophyll slowly breaks down, the green colors vanish, revealing the brilliant colors hidden within. This annual process occurs first in the Upper Peninsula and then steadily progresses southward into Oakland County.

Contrary to a common belief, it’s overcast and cloudy days, not bright sunny days that seem to add to the intensity of October colors. When clouds of an approaching October thunderstorm darken the sky, the colors appear more alive and vibrant, while intense sunshine seemingly dulls the colors.   

Sugar maples explode into shades of orange.

Red maples, as you may have assumed, turn red.

Red oaks, unlike many oak trees with leaves that turn dull brown, are brilliant red.

Sassafras leaves appear in multiple eye-catching colors and shapes.

Quaking aspen leaves turn golden and they crackle, quake and shimmer in the winds.

Striking wonders of October’s good story are often hidden beneath the dazzling canopy of sugar and red maple trees and the deep green of our evergreens. Some are at eye level, others are barely as high as a chipmunk’s ear. The wetland’s edge also harbors hidden stories, but you will need a keen eye and patience to read that story. Today I’ll share seven of those hidden gems of October that will open the book for you.

Witch Hazel is a shrub-like native tree with a rich natural history that creates spidery yellow flowers that bloom from early October well into December. It’s a master of hiding in plain sight even when in full bloom.

Poison Sumac can create days of woe and misery when accidently encountered, especially at face-slapping height. It’s rather common at the wetland’s edge and its green leaves turn to beautiful shades of reddish orange in early October.

Poison Ivy remains potent even after it changes from dark green to scarlet red.

Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) is aptly named and is one of the most common fungi to be found in the fall on decaying logs. It appears in many different shades of color, which is noted in its species name, versicolor.

Resinous Polypore, also known as Late Fall Polypore was a challenge to identify. However, this image, captured last week at Indian Springs Metropark, holds an identification clue. Look closely and you will note its amber resin droplets, an identification clue that I first mistook for dripping tree sap.

Pitcher Plants are one of the least common and most amazing wetland plants of Oakland County. These carnivorous plants thrive by capturing and dissolving insects to obtain necessary nutrients. Their reddish hues intensify as they prepare for winter dormancy.

Fringed Gentian is an increasingly rare beauty of our healthy wetland habitats. These sky-blue autumn blooming wildflowers all but defy description.

By mid-October, the annual leaf fall nears its colorful peak. Although they are often bagged or burned to keep closely cropped green lawns “clean,” dead leaves serve vital functions in nature’s world. As they slowly decompose, they release nutrients into the forest floor and create a rich humus that functions somewhat like a sponge. That colorful sponge lessens the impact of storm downbursts and absorbs rainfall. In addition to creating seasonal beauty, the presence of leafy carpets also slows hillside and stream bank erosion.

In addition to salamanders and wood frogs, there are dozens of creatures that depend on layers of leaves in the woods as a vital ecosystem. It is also the primary habitat for toads, chipmunks, and hundreds of insect species. The common Woolly Bear Caterpillars will transform into Isabella Tiger Moths in spring, and are just one of the common hidden creatures that spend the winter under the blanket of colorful leaves.

Whether you are looking for stunning colors while driving slowly along rural Oakland County roadsides, such as this eye-popping sugar maple just before a thunderstorm, or leaf peeping anywhere in our nation, this interactive map will guide you to peak colors.

Oakland County has hundreds of miles of trails for hikers, cyclists, and trail runners. The Paint Creek, Polly Ann, Clinton River, Michigan Air Line and West Bloomfield trails are ablaze with vibrant colors. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Huron-Clinton Metroparks and Oakland County Parks and Recreation has a rich portfolio of easily accessible trails with stunning leaf viewing. Or perhaps embrace a woodland trail of peaceful solitude by walking slowly, stopping often, looking, and listening. The pages of October’s good story will open for you.

Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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2 thoughts on “October’s Good Story

  1. Beautiful pictures and descriptions of what to expect in our woods. Thank you. I very much enjoyed this article.

    • Thanks Marla! Much appreciated. And even now ( Nov 23rd) with most colorful leaves down the woodlands remain beautiful.

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