Other September pages Flowers • Birds, insects and animals • Weather
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Leaves do not turn colour to any great extent during September: by the end of the month, the treescape is still mainly green. Quietly, however, leaf fall has already started. All sorts of trees and bushes are unobtrusively thinning out their leaves, but sometimes the only evidence for this is fallen leaves on the ground. In other cases you may notice tinted leaves - either individual ones or small patches.
Factors that drive this early tinting are varied. Dry summers can definitely sometimes produce it, or possibly how much moisture the tree has had during its entire growing season. Unexpectedly cold nights are almost certainly also a trigger, and possibly also colder than normal weather in general. But part of it does seem to be a general reduction of foliage in preparation for autumn.
Early tinting does not generally lead on to more widespread leaf colour in September, however. Once any tinted leaves fall and the remaining ones remain green. For this reason strong winds can paradoxically leave the treescape looking less, rather than more, autumnal. It is also quite possible for the month to start with many trees showing a bit of tint and finish with them looking completely green: this happened in 2016, when dry weather in August seems to have been a factor.
Whatever the reason, species which reliably seem to both tint and lose some leaves during the month include crack willows, birch, lime, hornbeam and rowan. Whitebeam, alder and poplar also shed foliage but without any obvious tinting. Shrubs tinting include hawthorn, blackthorn, wild rose and cherry plum, while elder may lose quite a lot of leaves in September without particularly turning colour. Some elders and crack willows can be quite bare by the month's end.
Brambles also often tint or lose leaves even while they still sport blackberries, and later in the month dogwood foliage likewise can start to go a characteristic maroon colour while it still has its berries, as can the leaves of guelder rose. Buddleia also may tint and shed leaves right from the start of the month, even before it is has entirely finished flowering.
Other trees which normally keep their leaves till late in the autumn - such as beech, oak, sycamore, sweet chestnut, hazel and field maple - can sometimes produce some tint this month. Ash trees occasionally show some yellowing, but if you see an ash-like tree aflame with yellow, it is more likely to be a robinia or honey locust, ornamental trees which are quite common in parks and suburban settings. In 2016 many ash trees also started to show leaves with blackened shrivelled tips from ash die-back, which could be an issue in future years.
2009 also saw most horse chestnuts making a fine display of golden leaves in September, but this was a special case. Traditionally the leaves on this tree turned around mid October, but in recent years its leaves have been affected in recent years by a leaf mining bug that causes they to become spotted, and then shrivel. In 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2016 many were shrivelled completely by the end of the month. There were slight signs of hope after the wet summer of 2012, when some trees had reasonable amounts of golden colour towards the end of September, but in 2013 and 2014 after a slow start in July and August the blight increased rapidly in September. 2015 again saw an improvement (after a cool August), with many trees only part shrivelled, though they got a bit worse during September, and some were fully shrivelled by the end.
In addition, sycamore has a leaf blight that creates black spots on its leaves, and in 2012 a disease on the South Downs caused its leaves to shrivel from early in the summer, though this has not so far been repeated.
Non-tree or shrub sources of autumn colour in late September include Virginia creeper, a climber found on garden walls and waste ground which turns a glorious red colour as the month goes on, and bracken, which can start to turn in the second half, though this is very variable from place to place. The plants of some flowers can produce colourful foliage as they die back - for example rosebay willowherb, which turns a bright orange colour later in the month, and black bryony, large or hedge bindweed, wood avens and even stinging nettles, which can produce some nice yellows.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts fall to the ground in September and by the end of the month the ground crunches underfoot with horse chestnuts (known colloquially as conkers), acorns (on both normal oaks and evergreen ones), beech nuts and even some sweet chestnuts, though plenty of the latter still remain on the tree. If you are sharp-eyed you may spot ripe hazelnuts early in the month, though squirrels and dormice generally seem to get to them first. In places - usually in or near gardens - you may also find ripe walnuts.
Some seeds on trees yellow or even turn brown as the month progresses and from a distance can look like tinted leaves. You can see this with ash and hornbeam, both of which sport big clumps of seeds. Hornbeam seeds may start to fall even when still green, forming thick carpets on the ground. Squirrels feeding on them may be to blame for this, since plenty still remain on the tree.
Squirrels also eat sycamore, field maple and Norway maple seeds while they are still green in July and August, leaving carpets of them under the tree (look closely and you can find the slit where they cut the seed out of its winged casing). You see fallen seeds under these trees in September too, but by now they tend they have increasingly turned brown (especially on sycamore), so may be being shed naturally. Some seeds of all three species also remain on the tree.
Winged seeds litter the ground beneath limes, having fallen off during July and August, though some still remain on the tree. Some of those left may turn yellow but others do not. Birch has fat cylindrical fruits which start to turn brown as the month progresses, though some can still be green at the month's end. If you look closely birch also has the tiny buds of next year's catkins and the same is true of alder and hazel. The new cones of larch are now brown and indistinguishable from last year's ones, which are also still on the tree.
Berries and fruit
Like August this is a great month for berries and they can be a useful aid to identifying shrubs. For example, there are red haws on hawthorn and juicy blue-black sloes on blackthorn, both of which become more noticeable as their bushes shed foliage. Blackberries can still linger throughout month, and while some may still be edible, others are moreish or over-ripe.
You also see red hips on rose bushes, plus black berries on dogwood, cherry laurel, and – early in the month – the hanging clusters of elderberries. Bizarrely, dogwood can even produce a few flowers late in the month. The wayfaring tree (a shrub of downland) may start the month with some red berries but they are all black by its end. Likewise privet berries (both on the narrow-leaved wild bushes and the rounder leaved garden variety if it is not too closely trimmed) can still be green earlier in the month but turn black later.
Trees and shrubs with red berries include whitebeam, rowan, guelder rose and female yews (the latter possibly still ripening to red earlier in the month), while the distinctively fluted berries of spindle start the month a dull maroon colour and then ripen to an attractive pink towards its end. Holly berries turn from green to red later in the month. The garish orange seed heads of cuckoo pint can sometimes still be seen on shady verges.
Two climbing plants - black and white bryony – leave long strings of their red berries in hedgerows long after their leaves have withered: those of black bryony may still be ripening from green to red during the month, though in places they are fully red from the start of the month. They have a more luscious look than those of white bryony, which are somewhat duller, but both are poisonous. In addition you can see red berries on honeysuckle even as it sometimes continue to produce flowers, and the same is true of bittersweet (otherwise known as woody nightshade) whose poisonous berries also look alarmingly seductive.
Another shrub that is in flower in September is ivy, though its blooms look so unconventional that you may not recognise them as such. It is their sickly sweet smell that usually alerts you to their presence, and the uncharacteristically summery sound of buzzing insects, as honeybees, butterflies, wasps and flies are attracted to this important late source of nectar. Ivy starts to flower usually in the second half of September, though this varies from bush to bush and from year to year - for example it was as early as late August in 2011 and not till the very end of September in 2013 and in many places in 2015.
In gardens and semi-wild places firethorn (aka pyracantha) bushes are aflame with great sprays of orange (or very occasionally red) berries; cotoneaster is also covered with red berries. In similar locations (and also sometimes in wilder spots) snowberries sport white globular berries which will in midwinter will stand out on their otherwise bare twigs. This is another plant that also may continue produce new flowers (tiny pink ones) well into September.
You can still find plums of various kinds (including damsons, which look like large sloes, bullaces, which are blue-black or white; also greengages and red commercial varieties), as well as apples, but as the month progresses they are increasingly to be seen on the ground. Crab apples can litter the ground in large quantities right from the start of the month. In suburban streets fallen berries and fruits can make a squashy mess on pavements. After country walks you find burs (from burdock) and tiny hooked seeds (for example from cleavers, wood avens and enchanter's nightshade) stuck to your socks.
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