The first day of autumn has arrived and with it came our first really cold day, which made it really feel like autumn. I’m not happy to see the cold weather come, but at least it gives me a good excuse to have a fire in the fireplace in the evening. The aspen have reached their peak in the high country; they were beautiful at Echo Lake this week, but those in our valley are still green.
One thing I miss in Colorado is the magnificent deciduous forest of the East. There are so many species of trees, and they all change color and drop their leaves for winter. The entire forest in the East looks like it was aflame with only a few scattered pines or hemlocks. Here the forest is just the reverse, being mostly dark green of pines, spruce and firs with only a scattering of aspen among them. The dark green of the Evergreens seem to frame the aspen, intensifying their color, and improves the “picture” just as a fine painting is improved by matting.
After a cool, damp summer, our evergreen trees seem to look healthier. They don’t even have the coating of fine dust on their needles that they usually have this time of year along our dirt road. Fall is a good time to really look at and learn more about evergreens. The colorful trees of the east have broad leaves like our aspen. Like them, they too must lose their leaves, in order to prevent winter damage.
The thin, smooth, needle-like leaves of the evergreens allow the snow to slip off, so they do not suffer such severe winter damage. However, evergreens do lose their needles, not all at one time, but they lose some every year, and those are usually the growth made two or three years ago. Right now is a good time to see this. It is especially noticeable on young trees, where you can see the branch tips more easily. The new growth needs sunshine and therefore is at the tips of the branches.
At this time, you can easily see the tip growth made this year; behind that is last year’s growth, and behind that are dried needles that were made three years ago. These are the needles that will fall during the coming winter. And behind them the branches are bare except for leaf scars that tell us they once bore needles.
Many more people worry, when they see these brown needles, that their tree is sick or has beetles. But when that is true, they are brown all over, not just on the three-year growth. As long as the new tip growth is green, your tree is probably healthy. It will shed most of those old needles over winter as it is buffeted by wind and snow. In the spring it will put forth a new whorl of needles at the tips of all branches, and the inner branches will be bare except for leaf scars. Each species of evergreen has its own pattern of growth, and they vary a good bit. Ponderosa pine particularly likes the sun, and therefore the inner branches die because the new tip growth shades them too much. You can lean against the trunk and look up into the tree almost to the top. In that shady central core there will be only a few dead branches; they prune themselves into tall, straight trees that makes good lumber.
Among the many tall and abundant plants that have taken a foothold in our area during this wet summer are two members of the sage family that have just now become very obvious — they are the fringed sage and western mugwort. Both of these are gray-green and were not obvious until some of the larger, more common grasses and other plants began to give way to fall. Fringed sage is also known as pasture sage. Its very finely divided leaves look like fringe (hence one name), and the other is obvious (it likes to grow in pastures). This delicate little plant with its soft gray-green foliage is very beautiful, and many people have encouraged it to grow on their properties. It looks much like the horticultural plant known as Artemisia, or silver mound. They both make beautiful soft gray-green mounds in the early spring, but the wild plant gets leggy in summer and then produces blossoms in a spike 12 to 18 inches high. It is not as attractive then, and, worse yet, it is one of the worst offenders when it comes to hay fever. It is very obvious right now, and if you have a lot in your yard, you might want to eliminate it now when it’s so easily seen.
For the next three months the days will grow steadily shorter and night will fall earlier until we lie in the grip of winter. Then Dec. 21 brings the winter solstice and the days begin to creep slowly longer. It is the best day of the year, for it promises that spring is on its way.