Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By Wilson Flagg (18051884)
[Born in Beverly, Mass., 1805. Died at Cambridge, Mass., 1884. A Year Among the Trees. 1881.]
THOUGH every one admires the beauty of autumn woods, not many are aware how imperfect are the colors that make up this gorgeous pageant. We speak of the scarlet and crimson of the maple, the oak, and the tupelo, and of many shrubs that equal them in brilliancy. But there is very little pure scarlet, crimson, or purple among these tints. If it were otherwise they would afford us less pleasure. In that case our senses would be intoxicated; now they are healthfully as well as agreeably stimulated. Pure colors spread over so wide an extent of surface would be too intense for perfect enjoyment. All the dyes of autumn foliage are sobered by the admixture of some earthy hue, something that prevents their rivalling the tints of heaven.
Green and yellow are often seen in their purity in the leaves of trees; crimson and scarlet are seldom pure, except in some parts of the brightest leaves. Even their green is not perfect, save in that stage of their development that precedes their full expansion. After this period, as the landscape-painter well knows, all verdure is tarnished and rusty. Indeed, the colors of leaves will not bear comparison with those of flowers, either in purity or variety; yet when viewed from a distance, and illuminated by sunshine, they seem nearly pure. Red leaves of different shades in sunshine produce at a distance the effect of crimson or scarlet, chocolate hues that of purple, and browns that of orange.
The hues of autumn are not very conspicuous before the middle of September, and it is worthy of notice that the brightest and purest colors are seen at the time when three-fourths of the trees still remain unchanged. As one after another assumes its ruddy, golden and purple hues, the earlier and more brilliant drop their leaves; and some are entirely denuded, while others are fully covered with foliage and verdure. Even different individuals of the same species, of maples, especially, manifest a great difference of habit in this respect, caused in some cases by the peculiarities of their situation. Trees in swamps and low grounds lose their leaves earlier than the occupants of a deep soil in the uplands.
Some species are perfectly uniform in their colors. The poplar and birch, for example, are invariably yellow; the sumach and whortleberry are chiefly red; while the maples display as many colors as if they were of different species. But each individual tree shows nearly the same every year, as apple-trees bear fruit of the same tints from year to year. Two red maples growing side by side are seldom alike, and in a group of them you will see almost as many shades of color as trees. Some are entirely yellow, others scarlet, some crimson, purple, or orange, others variegated with several of these colors. There is more uniformity in the tints of the sugar-maple. I have seen long rows of this species that were only yellow and orange, though its colors generally vary from orange to scarlet. Purple and crimson are confined chiefly to the red maple; I have seen in different individuals of this species all the hues that are ever displayed in the autumn woods. The red maples, more than all other trees combined, are the crowning glory of a New England autumn. The sugar-maple, though more brilliant, has a narrower range of colors.
As early as the last week in August, we perceive the tinting of a few red maples, which always exhibit the earliest change. Sometimes a solitary branch is tinted, while the remainder of the foliage is green, as if something affecting its vitality had prematurely colored it. Frequently the coloring process begins at the top; the purple crown of autumn is placed upon the green brow of summer, and we behold the two seasons represented at once in the same tree.
The first coloration is usually seen at the veins of the leaf, extending outwardly until the whole is tinted. Sometimes it appears in spots, like drops of blood upon the green surface; and in this case the leaf usually remains spotted. In the foliage of trees that assume a variety of colors, yellows generally predominate in the interior of the mass, red and purple on the outside. In the red maple, and less frequently in the rock-maple when in a protected situation, the leaves are often formally variegated with figures of yellow, red, green, and purple. Those of the poison-sumach, the cornel, and the snowy mespilus, are sometimes beautifully striated with yellow or orange upon a darker ground; but I have searched the woods in vain to find any other than a maple-leaf configurated like a butterflys wing.
In the foliage of the tupelo deep shades of purple first appear, brightening into crimson or scarlet before it falls. This tree more invariably shows a mass of unmixed crimson than any other species. Even in the maple, if the general presentation is red, you will find a considerable mixture of yellow. The colors of the scarlet oak are seldom pure or unmixed; but those of the tupelo are invariable, except as they pass through the gradations from purple to scarlet. If, therefore, the tupelo were as common in the woods as the maple, it would contribute more splendor to the scenery of autumn. There are many trees that never produce a red leaf. I have never found one in the foliage of the poplar, the birch, the tulip, the hickory, or the chestnut, which are all of some shade of yellow; but there are usually a few yellow leaves scattered among the ruddy foliage of any tree that assumes this color.
When all the circumstances attending the season have been favorable to the tints of autumn, there is no tree of the forest that would attract more admiration from the beautiful sobriety of its colors than the American ash. But this tree is so easily affected by drought, that after a dry summer its leaves fall prematurely and its tints are imperfect. The colors of the ash are quite unique, and distinguish it from all other trees. Under favorable circumstances its coloring process is nearly uniform. It begins with a general impurpling of the whole mass of foliage nearly at the same time, and its gradual changes remind me of those observed in sea-mosses during the process of bleaching. There is an invariable succession in these tints, as in the brightening beams of morn. They are first of a dark bronze, turning from this to a chocolate, then to a violet brown, and finally to a salmon color, or yellow with a slight shade of lilac. When the leaves are faded nearly yellow, they are ready to drop from the tree. It is remarkable, that, with all this variety of hues, neither crimson nor any shade of scarlet is ever seen in the ash. It ought to be remembered that the gradations of autumn tints in all cases are in the order of those of sunrise, from dark to lighter hues, and never the reverse. I make no reference to the browns of dead leaves, which are darker than yellow or orange, from which they turn. I speak only of the changes of leaves before they are seared or dry.
After the middle of October, the oaks are the most conspicuous ornaments of the forest; but they are seldom brilliant. In their foliage there is a predominance of what we call leather-colors, with a considerable mixture of certain shades of red that are peculiar to the oak. We rarely find pure yellow or scarlet leaves in the foliage of any species of oak. The color of the scarlet oak is nearer a purple or crimson than any other shade of red. The white oak turns, with but little variation, to an ashen-purple or impure violet. The black and red oaks display varying and imperfect shades of drab and orange. The oaks are remarkable for the persistence of their foliage, and for the duration of their tints, which are chiefly the brown and russet of dead leaves with a lively polish. Long after other deciduous trees have become leafless, the various sombre shades of the different oaks cast a melancholy tinge over the waning beauty of the forest.
We are wont to speak of trees as the principal objects of admiration in autumnal scenery, but the shrubs, though less conspicuous on account of their inferior size, are not less brilliant. It is also remarkable that reds predominate in the shrubbery, and yellows in the trees. Reds and purples distinguish the whortleberry, the cornel, the viburnum, and the sumach, including all their species. There is indeed so small a proportion of yellow in the shrubbery, that it is hardly distinguishable in the general mass of scarlet, crimson, and purple. Among trees, on the contrary, yellows prevail in all miscellaneous woods. They distinguish the poplar, the birch, the hickory, the tulip-tree, the elm, and a good proportion of the maples. It ought to be remarked, however, that there are more shrubs than trees that do not change materially, but remain green until the fall of their leaves. The alder remains green; and as it covers a large proportion of our wet grounds, it might seem to an observer in those situations that the tints of autumn were confined to the trees.
Many persons still believe frost to be the great limner of the foliage, as if it were a sort of dyeing material. On the contrary, the slightest frost will destroy the tints of every leaf that is touched by it. It is not uncommon to witness a general tarnishing of the autumnal tints by frost as early as September. In some years they are spoiled by it before they have begun to be developed. An autumn rarely passes when the colors of the foliage are not half ruined before the time when they ought to be in their brightest condition. But the injury they receive from slight frosts is not apparent to careless observation. In the meridian of their beauty, heat will damage the tints as badly as frost. A very hot and sunny day occurring the first or second week of October makes almost as much havoc with the ash and the maple as a freezing night, fading their leaves rapidly and loosening their attachment to the branches, so that the slightest wind will scatter them to the ground. Yet the action of heat differs materially from that of frost. Frost imbrowns and crisps or sears the leaves, while heat only fades them to lighter and more indefinite shades. Frost is destructive of their colors, heat is only a bleaching agent. Cool weather in autumn without frost is necessary for the preservation of its seasonal beauty.