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NATURE HAPPENINGS - October 2003

Autumn Blush
by Damian Fagan

Ah, October. As summer’s scorching temperatures become a historical item, and the flood episodes of September’s deluges lose their intensities, I embrace the pleasant daytime temperatures and cool nights of fall with open arms. Perhaps it is my diminishing resistant to those hundred plus degree days, when I wear sunblock and sunglasses indoors. Like the lizards with whom they share this desert land, many Moabites lament the transformation of summer. They bask in the desert heat like their reptilian ancestors, but I say, shorter days and cooler nights - bring ‘em on.

Perhaps it is my New England heritage that starts to rise like sugar content in an autumn maple leaf that makes me cherish this season of colorful transition. Say goodbye to the green cloak of summer and hello to the romantic blush of autumn.

As a Connecticut Yankee I once heard a tale of why leaves turned color in the fall. That legend blamed that old rascal Jack Frost, whose amorous appeals while courting Mother Nature caused her to blush like a schoolgirl. When Old Man Winter caught wind of Jack’s adventures, he’d descend like a bad dream over the land, and those flushed cheeks would lose their crimson color.

Though I could find appreciation in the color schemes that stitched the woodlands together like a grandmother’s quilt, even if I was skeptical of this legend, I regretted the seemingly endless days of raking and bagging the leafy remnants of crushed dreams. With winds bearing from our neighbor’s yard, never the reverse, I spent many a day on the long end of a rake.

But during this time I was given an opportunity. A closer inspection of the leaves impaled on the tines of my rake, opened up a palette of colors that would make Crayola ® jealous. There were flames of color shooting along the leafy fingers, and the various species of hardwoods added texture and form to the whole, their signatures defined by wavy margins or deep, canyon-like lobes. I gained a greater sense of appreciation for the intricate patterns of veins that had once played a life-sustaining role to these stalked storehouses of photosynthesis.

Soon raking leaves was no longer a chore. I’d collect the colorful jewels of maple, hickory, locust, and birch and squirrel them away in the recesses of books and magazines. They would turn into bookmarks or art projects or be forgotten and crushed into tiny pieces. It wasn’t until years later, while studying botany in the land of evergreens that I really understood the process behind this autumnal blush.

Leaves contain several different types of pigments. Chlorophyll is the most noted and since these pigments absorb red and blue light from sunlight they reflect back light that appears green. Plants need to constantly synthesize chlorophyll during the growing season because this pigment breaks down in sunlight and is the primary site where photosynthesis takes place.

Other pigments found in these leaf cells, called carotenes or anthocyanins, are mostly masked by the chlorophyll. But with shorter days and cooler temperatures in fall, this triggers a change in the plant’s production of chlorophyll. Along with this decreased production, a growth of corky cells forms a membrane between the branch and the tree leaf. Eventually, this membrane will seal off this connection, creating the leaf to sever from the branch and descend to earth. During this termination process the underlying pigments are like supporting actors - they get their moment in the limelight. The light reflected from these pigments appears yellow, red or orange, or some fiery combination thereof.

Extending this colorful procession is a combination of warm days and cool nights; freezing temperatures or hard rains will soak the relationship, causing the leaves to prematurely age, turn brown and die. So even though I know I’ll have much work ahead raking and piling leaves for garden decomposition, I relish this time of year as much as Jack Frost does during his season of courting.

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