Friday, September 28, 2012

Early Splashes of Autumn Color

Fall creeps up on me in the same fashion each and every year.  I notice the change in blooming wildflowers and waning sunlight in the late afternoon almost subconsciously as the days of September slip slowly towards October and our inevitable slip into winter.  Cooler temperatures mean I can once again sleep with my windows cracked to allow that crisp, chilled night air to creep in and retire my air conditioning for the season.  It all seems to happen at slow enough intervals for me to never take full notice of the changes happening until that one day where it all just clicks and I realize my beloved fall is here.

This annual moment of recognition always seems to happen to me on the same stretch of country road close to my home.  The diversity of fall wildflowers and changing fall foliage never disappoints and paints a spectacular portrait of scarlet, oranges, and golds.  It's at this time I like to leave the car behind and walk down the road to see what fall scenery awaits the camera and I.

Bottle Gentian  ~  Gentiana andrewsii

The first stop and most anticipated stretch of the road is a wet ditch that contains the unbeatable blue hues of the bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii).  The plants on a good year number in the hundreds but the unfortunate drought we suffered through this past year allowed only a few dozen to appear and flower but some were in prime shape and willing to show off their floral beauty.

Poison Ivy  ~  Toxicodendron radicans

It's a shame poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) gets the bad rap it does from so many people and is so quick to be eradicated upon discovery in anything less than a natural setting.  Personally, I love the vine and am of the opinion it has arguably the most stunning multi-colored fall foliage.  Apart from the seasonal color, poison ivy's ripened fruit supplies migrating and over-wintering birds a vital and high quality food source.  I may have been on the losing end of the plant's irritating urushiol oil countless times but it's still not enough of a reason to like this plant any less.

Virginia Creeper  ~  Parthenocissus quinquefolia

Another attractive fall native vine is Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).  This is often confused with the aforementioned poison ivy which has three leaflets compared to the creeper's five.  Virginia creeper is a very common species throughout the state and is considered an unwelcome weed to some, but once again I welcome it and its foliage/sustenance capabilities.

American Hazelnut  ~  Corylus americana

All along the forest margins to either side of the road were numerous thickets of American hazelnut (Corylus americana), full of matured fruit residing in their papery husks.

New England Aster (darker purple) and Purple-stem Aster (lighter purple)

Blending nicely together against the more warm colors of the leaves were the cool blues and purples of several aster species growing along the road and forest margins.

New England Aster  ~  Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

The dark purple ray flowers of the common New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) are sure to brighten anyone's day with their contrasting golden inner disc flowers.  It can achieve somewhat of a weedy appearance and habit but it's hard not to like or want this frequent fall wildflower around.

Purple-stemmed Aster  ~  Symphyotrichum puniceum

In the more moist sections of the roadside and ditches grew large, bushy thickets of the appropriately-named purple-stemmed aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum).  They appear somewhat similar to the New England aster but have lighter lavender ray flowers and a purple, pubescent stem.  A couple photos above shows just how nicely the two species can mesh when growing side by side.

Yellow Buckeye  ~  Aesculus flava

One of the earliest woody plant species to lose its leaves each year is the yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava), which also happens to be one of the first plants to leaf out every early spring.  Their fall color leaves much to be desired but its branches can still draw some attention for the large, smooth, and leathery husks containing the well-known buckeye nut.

Large-leaved Aster  ~  Eurybia macrophylla

Scattered in the wood's lower slopes was one of my favorite species of Asteraceae, the large-leaved aster (Eurybia macrophylla).  The pale lavender flower heads arise from the large basal leaves come fall and add a soft touch of color to the forest.  Large colonies of plants can act as an attractive ground cover with their basal leaves that are quite obvious and noticeable when making an ID.

Chinese Chestnut  ~  Castanea mollissima

One of the most surprising discoveries along my country road is a mature, flowering/fruiting chestnut tree!  Alas, don't get too excited as my suspicions were quickly confirmed when I felt the wooly undersides of the leaves and new growth twigs.  This is a Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima), which is strikingly similar to our native American species (C. dentata) but differs in having its new growth covered in wooly hairs while our species is completely smooth (glabrous).  Regardless it was still neat to see a chestnut tree packed full of its tennis ball sized spiky fruits.

Musclewood  ~  Carpinus caroliniana

The musclewood (Carpinus carolinana) leaves were beginning to show signs of changing as photosynthesis shuts down and chlorophyll drains from the leaves.

Shagbark Hickory  ~  Carya ovata

It wouldn't truly be fall without the sound of walnuts, acorns, and hickory nuts falling from their limbs and branches to the ground below.  Fruit production among the oaks and hickories seems to have had a good year as I've seen many trees loaded with nuts; excellent news for the numerous woodland critters that will need some over-wintering sustenance.

Spicebush  ~  Lindera benzoin

The brilliant mature red drupes of the spicebush (Lindera benzoin) rarely linger on the shrubs come fall as the migrating birds are desperate to build up their fat reserves for the long flight south.  Spicebush berries are considered one of the best high-quality fruits for their high lipid (fat) content and can go a long way in powering a one-to-two ounce bird to central and South America.

I hope to bring more of southeastern Ohio's gorgeous fall scenery and wildflowers to the computer screen as the season wanes.  Let's hope this recent rain and some renewed sunny days combined with clear, cool nights will allow this fall's peak foliage show to not be a bust as the spring and summer's drought would suggest is likely.


  1. What a treat, to go for an early-autumn walk with you, Andrew. Gorgeous photos!

  2. Have you seen any macrophylla aster around Athens County? I'm still looking for this one.

  3. Poison Ivy is a favorite of mine too in the fall! Great pics of the asters, maybe I can get some tips from you sometime. I never seem to be able to capture the right purple hue that I see with my eye.