Sweet fires, elegy to summer’s long goodbye, you know them from the east side of the Alleghenies Maple and Oak burnished by October’s flinty light.
They remind you of bronzed baby shoes, first crocus, haunted Mars, blood count afterimage, river water shimmering with late light — unstoppable beauty, particular-and-everyday at once, accidental signals, ballast for any doubt or regret you carry.
Red trees in the west now, Japanese maple sentinels, curbside, that Big Leaf out along Decker Road nestled near conifer green, and in the blurred periphery driving north past Ash Creek swale….
Today the trees signal autumn, its early, damp darkness, wood-fire smoke in the neighborhood, apples ripening in fruit-room baskets….
The painter set them down in acrylic; the writer transforms them one more time.
“Many Japanese maples are red year-round, and almost all turn dazzling shades of scarlet in autumn. The Japanese celebrate their brilliant color with festivals, similar to those for spring blossoms. They love to tell a story about Sen-no-Rikyu, a famous sixteenth-century Japanese tea master, who had just finished sweeping the garden in preparation for a tea ceremony. It looked clean and soulless, so he flung two or three of the red maple leaves he had swept up onto the clear mossy ground.
“Not all maples turn red in autumn, but many do. The color comes from anthocyanin, produced as chlorphyll is withdrawn from the leaves and the tree shuts down for the winter. The sharp points of these blood-red leaves are probably the origin of the maple’s ancient Latin name, and our botanical name, acer, meaning ‘sharp’….
“Carl Peter Thunberg, a Dutch botanist stationed on the island of Deshima when the rest of Japan was closed to foreigners… brought the first Japanese maple west. This maple, Acer palmatum (‘like the palm of a hand’), has green leaves that turn scarlet in fall. In spite of imperial edicts, Thunberg was able to collect Japanese plants, partly by sifting through hay brought to feed the livestock on Deshima (and collecting the seeds in it) and partly by trading information with young Japanese botanists. In exchange for plants he taught them rudimentary Western medicine, and the Linnaean system of classification.”
“The Japanese maple is undoubtedly the most variable species, so far as foliage is concerned, of cultivated trees or shrubs…. While in other ornamental plants, especially in herbaceous ones, variation frequently occurs in flowers, here the ornamental feature depends mainly on the leaves, and sometimes also on the shape of the plant.
“This great variation is brought out by intensive cultivation and selection in the Japanese garden. The species has been cultivated there since very early times for the brilliant red foliage in autumn so frequently praised in poetry and depicted in paintings. The Japanese call it ‘Takao maple’ because it is especially abundant on the mountain Takao, famous since ancient times for autumn coloration. They use it extensively in their gardens and also as a potted dwarf tree…
“The Japanese maple is a shrub or small tree. It is native to Japan and adjacent parts of the Asiatic mainland. In the Japanese literature there are hundreds of named forms, many of which are now also in cultivation in Western gardens. The variation may be either in the color or the shape of the leaves or sometimes in a combination of these two characters….
“In color, the leaves vary from bright green to yellow and different shades of red or purple. They turn yellow to orange or red in the autumn.”
For decades you’ve lightened us in every season of the year Your small veined leaves in early spring speak greenly of life and promise and health so soundly standing there of bare trunk and crowded limb There in the prime of summer your luring red leaves — flirting with ripe appeal And even more — my autumn beauty you offer mature foliage a russet-red unspeakable glimpse beyond breath or word
I took the photos in this post (and the next one) whilst gathering some outdoor winter color for my Christmas project (see Seven Days to Christmas: When Nature Does the Decorating) — but didn’t use them back then (which seems like YEARS ago, for some reason). The photos are of various Japanese Maple shrubs, trees, and leaves at their peak autumn color (or slightly past it) — which maybe fills in a gap as we wait patiently for the appearance of pre-spring buds and new flowers around the ‘hood.
“Nandina domestica grows, as it should with such a specific name, close to the house, and as it does in Japan, where every garden, however small, possesses a specimen close by the door….
“One would like to think it was so favoured on account of its beauty, but I have been told that it produces wood with an aromatic flavour that is valued by the Japanese as being the most tasty and suitable for a toothpick. If this be true the poetry of the name domestica vanishes, so let us hope it is false….
“Anyway, I grow the plant for its beauty, and like to remember that Celestial Bamboo is one of its old names. It does well here, I believe, chiefly because it is shaded by a screen of Ivy from the southern sunshine, and it is practically evergreen, only losing its leaves after severe winters….
“My plant is five feet high and beautiful all the year, perhaps most especially so when the young leaves are every imaginable shade of crimson, copper, and bronze, and contrast with the deep green old ones…. The fine red berries that are produced freely in warmer countries, and especially in the gardens round Pau, where they are largely used for Christmas decorations, are never ripened here, or it might well be at its best in Winter.”
“By the nineteenth century European botanic gardens, most notably the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, were sending botanists on plant-hunting expeditions and establishing colonial botanic gardens as outposts to hold and propagate plants destined to be sent back to parent institutions. Scotland’s Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh was also active in funding expeditions to remote areas. Its roster of intrepid botanical explorers includes David Douglas, 1799-1834, for whom the Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) of northwestern America is named, and Robert Fortune, 1812-1880, whose plant-hunting skills are immortalised in the Euonymus fortunei.
“Partly because of the exciting discoveries of these explorers, botanic gardens also became horticultural showcases, thus stimulating the growth of the nursery industry and the introduction of exotic plants into private gardens during this period.”
Both nandina and euonymus are considered evergreen shrubs, and easy to find all around the southeast (and in many parts of the world). I seem to see them most often in the winter, probably because the color of their leaves shifts along with the rest of the autumn leaves; but unlike trees, both shrubs tend to hang onto their leaves all winter. So I spy them as splashes and shades of red, purple, or pink from late winter through early spring, while much of the rest of the landscape has gone leafless. Some of their leaves will drop into colorful piles at the base of the plant, but those that stay put will do so until new leaves push them off their stems. The berries are often red or pink (see, for example, photos at the bottom of my post Seven Days to Christmas: When Nature Does the Decorating); but occasionally I see some that are especially adorable in yellow or orange.
Until I found the quote from E. A. Bowles about nandina above, I wasn’t aware of the Japanese custom of planting them near a front door. It surprised me because there is one nandina — the only one on my property — growing near my front door, oddly stuck and surrounded by concrete in a small space between the front porch steps and the outside wall of my living room. Despite being cut to the ground — and enduring waterfalls of rain from the roof just above it — it has returned every year since 2005, producing a handful of thin stems with slender green leaves, then changing color and producing berries every fall.
I had always thought my nandina was a displaced invader — assuming it had grown from a seed that had blown in and taken root — and have cut it down several times. Now, after reading Bowles, I wonder if someone planted it there on purpose — as an oriental greeting, a symbol that means “Welcome to my house.” I suppose I’ll treat it differently now — let it grow a little wild, I think — as this bit of mystery-history is something I won’t forget.
The first ten photos below are of several euonymus shrubs, “euonymus” being a word I kept misspelling as “eunonymous” (you know, like: I’m anonymous and you’re you-non-ymous) — but now I think I got it right. Their leaves tend to be round or teardrop-shaped, clearly different from the slim, pointed nandina leaves in the next seven photos. These seventeen images are followed by three of each shrub, with their backgrounds rendered in black.
Over my cliff is a maple tree That always delights my heart to see.
In some stormy day its smooth bole fell And now lies prone where it started well.
Its trunk is scarred, and with branchlets weak That struggle still to the light they seek.
But straight to the blue its new limbs rise And spread their leaves to the rains and skies.
One would not know from the verdant crown That winds had beaten the old trunk down.
Its neighbors stern in the forest grim Stand stiff and strict and all churchly prim.
But its branches spread more wide than they And fling their fruits to the winds away.
And panellings fine its bole will make When the artist comes his part to take.
Over my cliff is a broken tree That it always cheers my heart to see.
I have on several earlier posts quoted (click here!) from Liberty Hyde Bailey’s botanical work The Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture (which is so big I call it a “cyclopspedia”) — but had somehow missed the fact that Bailey was also a poet and published several books of poetry in the olden days. So I was pleased to come across his poem about a broken tree to go with the photos below: the poem seemed to mirror my brief obsession with photographing these damaged trees.
The first nine photos below feature the broken-trunk trees I came across in early winter — two that had likely split during last summer’s August thunderstorms; and one that must have come down during autumn’s similarly stormulous days, given that the leaves had switched on their fall shades before the tree came down. The color contrasts caught my eye — the dark fallen branches against red and orange groundcover, and the orange leaves against the pebblestone walkway. The first ones almost look like the tree dropped a section to rake up the leaves. I didn’t actually catch them raking leaves, to be honest — but maybe they only do that when no one’s watching.
The hydrangea pink cheeked nods its head a paper brain without a skull
a brain intestined to the invisible root where beside the rose and acorn
thought lies communal with the brooding worm True but the air remains the wanton the dancing that holding enfolds it
a flower aloof Flagrant as a flag it shakes that seamy head
or snaps it drily from the anchored stem and sets it rolling
I’ve often photographed hydrangeas during the winter (see, for example, Winter Shapes: Hydrangea Skeletons (1 of 2)) because I like their graceful lines and the way their desiccated flowers catch light. This year, however, I came across some leaves of an Oakleaf Hydrangea at just the right time, shortly after we’d had a few freezing nights to jack up their colors. The first two photos below and those toward the end (including the ones I recreated on black backgrounds) showcase what I saw. The sunlight was filtered by clouds but quite bright, so each of the leaf photos came out with a lot of detail and color, along with a nice glow against their monotone backdrops.
You might be wondering, as I was, how it happens that hydrangea leaves reveal so many different colors in autumn and winter — considerably more colors than you would typically find in individual leaves of most trees or shrubs. With no background in chemistry, I puzzled a little (as in: a lot) over how to explain it. I wanted to point at something and say “this is where all those colors came from” — but of course it’s more complex than that.
Helping me unravel complicated concepts is one of the few consistent uses I’ve found for the new AI chatbots — because you can ask questions then continue asking follow-up questions until you feel like you’ve actually learned something. Pretty much any starting question works to get the conversation going, so to my imaginary friendClaudeAI, I asked what I wanted to know:
When hydrangea leaves change color in the fall or early winter, they exhibit a wide range of colors, even on the same leaf. Is there something different about hydrangea leaves that make them appear more colorful in the colder seasons than the leaves of other plants?
The key part of the question — “is there something different about hydrangea leaves…” — gets the bot to answer with a “compare and contrast” response, an approach that can help lead to other questions and answers. So to this first question, ClaudeAI responded, uh, thusly:
Hydrangeas do tend to display a wider range of fall leaf colors compared to many other plants, and there are a few reasons for this:
Soil pH – Hydrangeas are unique in that the soil pH affects their flower color. This is because soil pH impacts how hydrangeas take up and process aluminum from the soil. Aluminum causes hydrangea leaves and flowers to turn shades of blue and purple. In more acidic soils, they take up more aluminum and become bluer.
Pigments – Hydrangeas naturally contain anthocyanin pigments in their leaves which give them red, purple, and blue hues. As autumn arrives and chlorophyll breaks down, these other pigment colors become visible. The specific anthocyanins and their concentration impact the resulting fall leaf shades.
Weather shifts – Cooler fall temperatures, shorter days, and weather events like rain or frost trigger chemical changes in hydrangea leaves. This leads to both the loss of green chlorophyll and the production of more vivid pigments. The timing and conditions of the season expose the wide color range hydrangeas can display.
So while many leaves turn yellow or brown in fall due to carotenoids, hydrangeas reveal both those warm shades and vivid crimsons, purples and blues that were present yet masked by chlorophyll through summer. Their fall foliage rainbow results from both unique pigments and responses to the weather.
There are two characteristics of this response that I found helpful. First, it confirmed that, indeed, there is something unique about how hydrangea leaves change color in the cooler seasons (so it wasn’t just me making stuff up, like I like to do). Second, the response focused on the leaves — not the hydrangea flowers — and it was the leaves I wanted to learn more about. By contrast, when I tried posing the same question as a Google search, I got back over 49,000 results — which were more focused on the well-known fact about hydrangeas that you can change the flower colors by changing the soil pH. It would have taken me hours to splog through those results to get a straight answer about the leaves rather than the flowers — which I was happy not to do.
My conversation with the bot went on for several days (!!) because I kept thinking of more clarifying questions. But the concise overview of this phenomenon (written by me (the human), not the bot) goes something like this:
Just like hydrangea flower colors can be altered by changing their soil chemistry, their leaves contain the potential for alternate colors too. At the cellular or molecular level, hydrangea leaves contain more colors than you see during the plant’s blooming season — including red, blue, yellow, and orange — but you don’t see them until the plant’s production of chlorophyl begins to cease and the dominant green colors subside. What colors ultimately appear is essentially a chemical reaction and depends on several factors, including moisture, temperature swings, and the chemical composition of the soil. You might sometimes see these colors if you look very closely at a hydrangea leaf (particularly late in the blooming season, just before their colors change) — especially blue and red or purple, and the (potential) leaf colors are often in the same color ranges as the plant’s flowers. Voila!
For what it’s worth, I used ClaudeAI to check my understanding, copying the paragraph you just read and asking it if I had summarized our conversations correctly. Here’s the response I got back:
That is an accurate summary covering the key points we discussed about hydrangea leaves and their fall color change. You concisely captured information about:
How soil chemistry affects hydrangea colors, both flowers and leaves
The presence of multiple pigments (red, purple, orange, yellow) at the cellular level even when dominated by green chlorophyll
Chlorophyll fading allowing underlying colors to emerge in the fall
Factors like weather, light, and soil impacting final fall leaf tones
Anthocyanins providing blue/purple and carotenoids providing orange/yellow tones
The potential to see hints of colors before full change occurs
Similarity between potential leaf pigments and flower colors
I think you distilled the mechanisms behind the visually stunning hydrangea foliage transformation very well into key takeaways. Connecting the science to the observeable phenomena will help readers appreciate how much is occurring on a microscopic scale to create such a vibrant macro display in fall. Nice work summarizing the essence of our discussion! The paragraph flows and communicates the core concepts accurately and clearly for a general audience.
Fascinating, no? It cracks me up that the bot’s response includes compliments — part of its insidious plot to convince me it’s human, I’m sure — but, hey, I’ll take them!