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Tree by tree - the autumn sequence

Other October pages: Introduction to leaf fall Berries, nuts, seeds and shrubs Flowers Birds Deer rut, insects and farm animals • Weather

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When different tree species shed their leaves can vary from tree to tree, place to place, and year to year. Nevertheless here is a list of them roughly in the order they are noticed in a typical autumn, with some approximate timings:

One of the earliest trees you may notice is the horse chestnut. Once these produced wonderful golden colours in mid October but since 2006 a leaf mining bug has caused their foliage to shrivel from late summer onwards. This makes them a very prominent sight in September and early October for all the wrong reasons. From a distance they may look like normally tinted trees but a closer view reveals the sad sight of the dead leaves. However in 2009, 2012 and 2015 some horse chestnuts managed to beat the bug and produce reasonable leaf colour in late September.

Otherwise among the first trees to shed are crack willows, which often grow beside rivers. They can have a mottled effect, with some tinted leaves mixed in with green ones, or just lose their leaves while they are green. They can already be quite thin in the first half of October and bare by the fourth week, though a few leaves may remain on them well into November. The very similar white willows often don't shed to any degree until mid October and may not go bare till the end of general leaf fall, with a few leaves hanging on even after that. Goat or grey willows, the ones that produce pussy willow catkins in spring, are rather inconspicuous at this time of year: they go mottled and can shed quite early or hold onto some leaves till the end of leaf fall.

Another early tree to turn is the hornbeam. These can produce quite large patches of tint early in October but are starting to turn more generally by mid month. They produce a wonderful yellow, then gold, sometimes later adding a reddish tinge. Full tint is not usually achieved until the first week of November, but in 2011 and 2012 all were bare by the end of October. There is a pyramid-shaped ornamental variety of this tree found in suburban streets which can shed earlier or last longer than the wild species.

All three of our wild maples also start to turn quite early, but then go on to keep some leaves until the end of leaf fall. Sycamore can show some tint as early as late September (early September in 2017) though since it only produces muddy yellows and greens, mixed with black blotches, it tends to get overlooked. (The black blotches are actually a fungus which is an indicator of clean air: the more blotches, the cleaner the air). Many sycamores then go bare by the start of November, though some - often smaller ones - keep some leaves till the end of general leaf fall.

Also early to show tint are the diminutive leaves of field maple (the only truly native maple in the UK, the other two species being introduced) which produce a mottled effect - some leaves green, some leaves yellow - from quite early in October. But field maple colour is at its best at the end of general leaf fall in mid November, when showers of its bright yellow leaves seem to be everywhere in hedgerows and tree margins. (In 2015 field maple leaves also turned gold in late October, something I had not seen before).

Our other wild maple, Norway maple, can easily be mistaken for sycamore but can be distinguished from it by the pointed ends to its leaves. It usually starts to tint in mid October but is at its best in late October and the first ten days or so of November, when it can produce bright yellow colours.

There are lots of other ornamental maples in our parks and city streets which tint at similar times to Norway maple. One that finishes a good deal earlier is the red maple, which brings a touch of the American fall to our suburban streets with a spectacular display of red foliage in mid October but is often bare by the end of the month.

Shrubs are thining out in October too. Many are dealt with on the next page, but two worth mentioning here, because they are very prominent in the countryside, are hawthorn and blackthorn. They are shedding leaves slowly throughout early October and in cold years can be bare as early as the third week. Usually, however, they have their best colour at the end of the month or the very start of November, going bare soon after. With both species you may still find a few leaves - tinted or green - right to the end of the the leaf fall season. Both shrubs go mottled - that is a mix of green and yellow (and sometimes gold) leaves, with blackthorn sometimes adding pinkish tones. Notice too how blackthorn twigs, which are soft and flexible in summer, harden into sharp thorns as the leaves fall.

Elder is a very common shrub, but loses its leaves very inconspicuously since they usually do not tint at all beyond showing some very slight lightening or yellowing. It is frequently bare by late October, but often retains a very few leaves on its upper twigs after general leaf fall has ended.

Back with the trees, birch can show tint early in October, producing an attractive mottled effect – some leaves green, some yellowy-gold. Towards the end of leaf fall all the remaining leaves become a wonderful golden shower and on some trees they can linger well into late November. Once the leaves have gone you can see the buds of next year's catkins and also the tree's desiccated cylindrical seed heads (both of which have actually been on the tree since July).

Limes can turn a wonderful yellow though often are a much duller colour. Some can show substantial tint as early as the second week of October but they are remarkably variable in their timing and others remain green till the end of the month or even into November. In the warm year of 2006 they were a spectacular feature in the third week of November, having resisted turning up until then, and it is not impossible to find a bit of lime foliage putting on a show right at the end of leaf fall.

Sweet chestnuts also start turning in the early part of October and can make a wonderful display of yellows, golds and browns mid month. They somehow seem to keep some leaves till the end of leaf fall, however, which is when they are most noticeable.

Poplars (for example the hybrid black variety) often do not turn before shedding their leaves, but in other years they go a muddy yellow, occasionally a brighter hue. This can happen as early as the second week of October or maybe not till the end of the month. Lombardy poplars may shed at the same time or last into early November. They can go a muted golden colour under sufficient provocation, but usually don't produce very striking colours and their leaf fall is barely noticed.

By the second half of October you also see lots of ash leaves on the ground (in 2017 this was true from the second week of September onwards). They often shed almost entirely green, or at most with a pale greeny-yellow tinge, and not untypically are mainly bare by the end of October - as was the case in 2009, 2010, 2014, 2015 and 2017. In 2013 and 2016 some were bare quite early, others showing pale tint at the end of October, but quite a few lasting into November. In 2017 there was also quite a bit of pale yellow tint on ash.

Just occasionally, however, ash foliage turns a bright yellow, as happened in 2008 after cold nights early in the month, and in much smaller numbers in 2011 and 2012. At such times do not confuse it with ornamental robinias in parks and gardens, which have similar looking leaves and turn an intense yellow. From 2016 onwards ash die-back disease also started to impact the south east of England: what effect this will have on the trees remains to be seen, but I am told that the shrivelling to brown of some ash leaves in autumn is not a sign of it.

If you had to give a prize for the best autumn colours to be seen in the wild in the south east, it would probably go to wild cherry. Found in city streets as well as woods, but not to be confused with the ornamental park cherries (which are cherry plums), its leaves can produce spectacular golds and pinks and absolutely shine out in woodland once turned. This usually happens towards the end of October, but some trees can turn much earlier or later. In 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017 wild cherries mysteriously failed to produce much colour at all, however (in the countryside: street trees seemed unaffected), presumably because they shed their leaves without turning.

The other great autumn spectacle in the south east are beech woods. The transformation of these to deep yellows and golds is breathaking if you can catch it at just the right time. There are two phases. From mid October the exposed faces of beeches - the trees on the edge of woods or standing alone in fields, for example - can already be showing good tints, but the colour does not penetrate down inside the wood, where foliage remains largely green.

Phase two is when the colour does reach down to path level, by which time a walk through a beech wood is a riot of colour. This occurred in the last week of October in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015; in the second week of November in 2007; in the second to third week in 2017, and in the third week of November in 2006, 2013 and 2016. In 2014 some beeches were bare by the fourth week of October but the rest were at their best in the third week of November. Beech hedges can retain brown leaves right through the winter (I once read that this happens if they have been trimmed in the previous year). Wild trees may also retain some dead leaves on a few sheltered boughs beyond the end of general leaf fall.

Not surprisingly for the king of the forest, oak tends to be among the last trees to fully turn colour – usually a rusty brown, but with some initial golds - though they can show patches right from the start of October. A few may then be fully tinted or even bare by the end of October. Mostly, however, full tint occurs in mid November - in the second week from 2007 to 2012 and in 2017, but the third week in 2006, 2013, 2014 and 2016. In 2015 there was no defined time when the oaks were at their best but rather a slow and patchy tint and shed throughout late October and November.

Oaks then quite often hang on to dead leaves for a time after leaf fall is over - often till late November (2009, 2010, 2011) and sometimes (2005, 2006, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017) into the first week of December. It can be hard to tell the difference at this time between golden brown foliage that is still alive and brown leaves that are dead but still on the twig: some leaves may even still be green in late November, as if the tree is reluctant to let go.

By the time the oaks are at full tint, leaf fall is about over. Hazel is the main tree still retaining leaves in the countryside at this time. It can tint early in October but often remains mainly green (though thining slowly) until the very end of the general leaf fall. If it does tint it is nearly always mottled (ie green and yellow leaves mixed), with individual leaves often turning yellow from the outside in. It can also produce a more striking yellow as a result of a sudden cold snap. Once the leaves have gone you can see next year’s catkin buds, which have in fact been growing since July.

Late in the leaf fall process you may also find a lot of foliage still on the majestic London planes of our streets and parks, though they have been quietly shedding leaves (and producing some mottled tints) since early October. Towards the end of leaf fall their enormous leaves – some as big as a soup plate – make the city streets slippery.

Another late survivor alder, whose leaves never tint. It sheds slowly throughout October and into November, often keeping some leaves unnoticed among its cones and catkin buds even into December.

You might also be surprised to see weeping willows still looking quite green until late in November. This seemingly delicate tree is in fact one of the first to put out leaves in spring (see March trees) and one of the last to drop them in autumn. Mostly it sheds green, or only faintly mottled, but right towards the end of leaf falls it can sometimes produce quite good yellow tints: it is often hard to tell if this is coming from its leaves or from its yellow branches, however.

One last hardy tree, often overlooked but producing a lovely gold when it finally turns, is the larch, the only needle-bearing tree to lose its leaves. It turns colour right at the end of general leaf fall - often around the third week in November - and its fallen needles can make a vibrant orange carpet on the woodland floor.

More October pages:

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