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Nature’s fall beauty carries hope, promise

A sunny day in the latter half of November seemed especially inviting for a walk around the woods on my small farm. What Edwin Teale termed “the chromatic parade of the fall foliage” was on display there, and leaves already fallen were newly revealing trees’ fruit bounty. Visiting birds were feasting on these, such as a mockingbird on the berrylike clusters of the beautyberry shrub and a flock of robins fighting for remaining, black fruits of the Carolina buckthorn.
The leaves of a large beech, its shining winter-bud spindles terminating the twigs, were of bluish-green tint on shaded branches while its sun-lit foliage showed mottling and commingling of colors, with soft yellow streaking along rims and mid veins. On a red oak, some leaves had turned bright orange, some were flaming red.
Many of the pawpaw’s large, mellow-toned yellow leaves were hanging down at nearly 90-degree angle to their twigs, as if being pulled by gravity, yet the tree was still holding on to them. Over-towered by already bare branches of a black locust, the compound leaves of a butternut tree were still shining green, their many leaflets held on hairy stalks, in the tree’s top branches a squirrel’s winter-home now visible.
With most of its leaves falling, the hackberry tree’s purplish fruits could be seen, aligned in rows of stalked, single fleshy berries, food for birds, along the outer twigs. Juxtaposed to its companions’ multicolored foliage, the red mulberry tree was fully clad in dark green leaves though its abundant fruits, blackberry-like, had long ago fallen to the ground or been eaten by birds.
On the linden tree only “reduced leaves” were left. These papery bracts, about five inches in length, in summer hold an appended floral stalk with intensely fragrant flowers much loved by bees. Wing like, they would now serve to propel the nutlet fruits away from the parent tree.
The flashing yellow coming from the common witch-hazel was not its leaves turning. As though in mistaken timing or a kind of reversal of spring, it had opened its flowers, with characteristically twisted, ribbonlike petals clustered around branches and twigs. As the last tree to bloom, late-working bees can find forage provision there.
Two honeylocust trees also presented a stark contrast. The male standing completely bare against the sky, the female’s 18” long fruit pods appeared to have almost outdone the summer’s foliage in sheer bounty. Having picked up off the ground more than 400 of these over a week’s time, they seemed outnumbered yet by pods still on the branches.
When fresh, an agriculture report suggests, their pulp “has always attracted the sweet tooth of animal and man alike.” Native to a large central US region, the honeylocust is thought to have been spread by prehistoric animals like the woolly mammoth. Defending against these, it fortified itself with stiff thorns; modern varieties, perhaps responding to absence of these predators, are relatively thornless.
We value nature’s beauty. We must hope and act that its fruitfulness, dependent on a cornucopia of diverse plants we were given, will endure.