Perhaps this is not breaking news – “Autumn arrives in New England.” But I felt compelled to point out to the rest of the world that just because the leaf-tracking Web site The Foliage Network has decided to drop Rhode Island from its deciduous tour, doesn’t mean the color is lacking in the Ocean State. According to the site:
Due to a lack of foliage spotters, we regret that we will no longer be covering Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island.
So that leaves it to Rhode Islanders to cover our own state. With help from my dog-eared copy of Neil Jorgensen’s “A Sierra Club Naturalist’s Guide” to southern New England, here’s a brief description of the showstoppers in our autumn landscape:
The first to turn are the red maples – the Rhode Island state tree – in the swamps, glowing bright red and occasionally orange. Also early are the white ash found on uplands and stream banks, making a variety of distinctive colors from maroon to rust to a dark greenish red.
As the season moves on the bright orange of poison sumac adds to the warm look of swamps and bogs while twiggy tupelo turns an intense dark red on the edges of swamps and ponds. On the slopes of upland forest, red maples turn vivid orange, yellow and red, often hanging on until Halloween. The intense yellow of hickories, lacy in appearance, and the slightly duller canary of black birch will also come out during the middle fall period. Beech can be found in moist, shady sites, leafing light green to yellow to brown.
Sugar maples, the postage stamp tree of the New England autumn, pose for desk calendars on roadsides, in cemeteries and churchyards in their brilliant peach color. Alternating shades of yellow in old fields and waste grounds are often painted by quaking aspen alongside the pinkish-orange and yellowing sassafras (which also like the wood’s edge and dry spots). They are joined by Staghorn sumac, featuring vibrant orange turning to vivid red leaves, growing in large clumps suggesting a frozen fire. The middle season also features the purplish maroon maple-leaved viburnum, traditionally spotted in upland woods, especially among oaks.
Speaking of oaks, it is a species that sometimes gets short shrift when discussing New England’s fall foliage, but some autumns the oaks can be quite lustrous. Both red oak and black oak present variable colors, with the former generally reddish-brown and the latter mostly yellowish-brown, in canopy that has been known to last well into December in Rhode Island. Norway maple, the last of the maples to turn, goes out in a bright yellow flash while the last flush of fall is usually played by the wild cherry, gradually progressing from green to yellow. Even past peak, in their copper, rust and russet skins, the raw umber and burnt sienna remains of failed Crayola colors, the local leafscape is worth exploring, no matter what the Foliage Network says.
Because it’s not just the act of looking at a leaf that defines the season. It's the quest for color, an adventure of fresh-air encounters and surprising discoveries on rambling back roads that makes foliage seeking such a pleasure in New England. It’s all part of the region’s carnival of fall – days of fermented cider tasting, wood smoke ghosts writhing like dryads from chimney stacks, mutant pumpkins in the patch, obscene gourd shapes spilling out from handmade baskets, the scent and crunch of pine needles in the frosty forest. Leading to this week’s question: What is your favorite spot in Rhode Island for fall foliage?