In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
November, 2011
Regional Report

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The magnificent fall color inspired this watercolor sketch while in North Carolina. Original work by Kim Haworth.

A Million Pieces of Gold

I have witnessed a miracle and it has enriched my soul with one million pieces of gold. They were spread across the mountains like Joseph's magnificent coat.

My most recent trip to visit my mother coincided perfectly with views of the spectacular fall color of the Smokey and Blue Ridge Mountains. Mum lives in Western North Carolina where they are lucky enough to have four distinct seasons, unlike here in sunny California where the seasons are divided into wet and dry. I usually try to time my twice yearly visits for fall and spring, hoping to avoid the delays of winter air travel and the humidity of summer, although I do miss the fireflies.

This year I arrived just as the fall color was coming to a spectacular crescendo. As a native Californian, this extravaganza of nature leaves me in awe. We don't experience the change of seasons here. Summer just seems to ooze into Christmas with nothing much in between.

In North Carolina, however, the burning bush (Euonymus alatus 'Compactus') was blazing like neon. Every maple tree was glowing with an inner light and trying to outdo its neighbor, and the sourwood trees (Oxydendrum arboreum) were cloaked in lustrous golden capes. The mountains were like giant patchwork quilts. It was a miraculous experience and the glory of it will live in my mind forever. One night thick purple clouds rolled over the mountains, rain fell in torrents, and the following morning the show was over. It happened that quickly.

The (Simple) Science of Fall Color
During the growing season, trees use chlorophyll to manufacture nutrients. The chlorophyll remains green while the trees are at work converting sunlight, nutrients in the soil, and water into food. They begin to shut down their food-production when the days grow short. At that time the green chlorophyll disappears from the leaves. As the green fades, yellow and orange colors remain. Small amounts of these colors have been in the leaves all along but hidden by the active green of the chlorophyll.

Red and purple colors are created mostly during the fall. The leaves of certain species of trees, maples for example, will trap glucose after photosynthesis has shut down for the year. It's the combination of sunlight and cool night time temperatures that turn the trapped sugars into vibrant reds and purples.

Something for Everybody!
For those of you who are originally from the East and miss this annual event, be joyful! There are plants that will "color up," even here in the mild West. Shrubs with vivid fall hues include nandina (heavenly bamboo), dogwood (Cornus), smoke tree (Cotinus), pomegranate (Punica granatum), burning bush and viburnum.

Trees that grace the fall with vibrant color here in the West are liquidambar, sour gum (Nyssa sylvatica), persimmon, maples (Acer), dogwood (Cornus florida) and Ginkgo biloba, which covers the ground with a million golden leaves (and sometimes stinky fruits if you have a female tree).

So my dears, don't despair! Plant now because fall in the West is the ideal time to contribute to your color palette!


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