Other November pages: Bushes, berries and seeds • Flowers • Birds and insects • Weather
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Autumn colours are generally at their best in the first two to three weeks of November: indeed, it is this period rather than late October which normally sees the finest displays, for example on beech.
Otherwise in the last stages of leaf fall the main colour is coming from oak (gold and then rusty brown, hazel and sycamore (a mix of green and rather muted yellows, though hazel can produce bright yellows after a sudden cold snap: its last leaves can be reluctant to fall), birch (whose remaining leaves are a lovely shiver of gold), field maple (whose diminutive bright yellow leaves are very prominent in field boundaries and on woodland edges) and Norway maple (sharp pointed leaves: fine yellow colours).
Limes (yellow) and hornbeam (yellow or gold and sometimes then reddish) can also last till relatively late in some locations, as can a few golden leaves on sweet chestnut. Other trees that reliably have some foliage left at this time include alder (whose leaves never tint), white willows and London planes. Weeping willow is robust too, tinting only slightly (rarely going a stronger yellowy-brown) and shedding leaves only right at the end of leaf fall.
Note also larch. It is the only conifer to lose its foliage, and before it does so its needles turn a fine golden colour, leaving a vibrant golden carpet on the ground when they fall. This only happens at - or in some years after - the end of the general leaf fall (at the end of November 2007 and 2009, in the second week in 2011 and 2012, and the third week in 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2016: in 2015 some larches turned quite early in the month and others in the third week).
It is not just larch needles that can make a bright carpet underfoot. Fallen leaves can also make the ground as colourful as the trees in November, a cheerful kaleidoscope of yellows and golds. The leaves can cover up mud and may obscure the course of paths in woodland. By the end of the month they rotting down to a brown mulch, however.
(See The autumn sequence for more details about which leaves fall and when, and Introduction to leaf fall in the October pages for the reasons for the various autumn colours).
The end of leaf fall
Leaf fall is typically more or less over by the end of the second or third week of November, but some leaves can linger on till the end of the month, or even into December.
In 2013, 2014 and 2016, for example, peak autumn colour was in the third week of November, but in 2013 oak, hazel, larch and birch remained into the first week of December, along with dribs and drabs on field maple, lime, hornbeam and sycamore. In 2014 it was hazel and larch that lasted, with a very few leaves on oak, field maple, weeping willow, lime and sweet chestnut, while in 2016 it was mainly oak, with some lingering birch and dribs and drabs on hazel, weeping willow, white willow and field maple.
In 2010 and 2015 sunshine and cold nights in mid October caused the bulk of leaf fall to be over by the end of the first week of November, but a substantial number of trees then retained foliage till the end of the month (in 2010) and until the end of the first week of December (in 2015). In both years oak lasted all month - turning a fine gold in the second and third week in 2010, but retaining quite a lot of green foliage in the very mild weather of November 2015. Hazel also lingered till the end in both years, as did weeping willow and some field maple and alder, and in 2015 a very few leaves of lime. In 2010 there was also quite a lot of birch, Norway maple and sycamore in late November, though there was relatively little in 2015. In both years larch lasted until the end of leaf fall.
The latest year of all was 2005, when there was about 30 percent leaf cover - including some green leaves - right up to the end of November and beech, alder, maple, London plane and especially oak leaves were in evidence as late as the 11th of December.
Even after leaf fall is definitely over, dead brown leaves can stay on oak trees into December, and the same is true on beech hedges that have been trimmed in the past year and occasionally also on a few on lower branches of beech trees.
Whenever it comes, the realisation that autumn colours are gone and the leaves are now bare is a sombre moment. The countryside looks bleak and on a grey day walks become a rather perfunctory exercise. Nature has shut down till mid January.
A consolation is the sight of bare tree branches etched black against the sky. Suddenly one notices their fantastic outlines, as well as views through them that were hidden all summer by foliage. Some trees, indeed, are quite recognisable in winter, despite the lack of leaves – the rounded shape of the oak, the way ash twigs turn up at the end, the silvery bark of the birch, and the myriad straight shoots growing up from the base of hazel. Alder is also recognisable as the only tree with both cones and catkin buds, and you may see balls of mistletoe (particularly on poplar and lime, but also apparently on apple and willow) and also last season's birds' nests (it is rather interesting to see what sites the birds chose).
Shorn of their foliage, some shrubs and trees also reveal the bright colours of their twigs. Those of dogwood are a bright red, while those of a certain variety of white willow glow orange. In sunlight, weeping willow fronds can be an attractive yellowy-brown. All trees and bushes have their buds set ready to produce next spring’s leaves – black ones on ash, sticky brown ones on horse chestnut, small brown ones on beech, and so forth.
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