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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 animalsWeather

Put your cursor over any photo to see its caption, or click here to see more autumn colour photos.

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. In 2009, 2012 and 2015 some horse chestnuts managed to beat the bug and produce reasonable leaf colour in late September, but this has not happened since.

Otherwise among the first trees to shed are crack willows, which often grow beside rivers. They can have a mottled effect, with some dull yellow 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, even to the end of leaf fall. 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. They scarcely tint at all. Goat or grey willows, the ones that produce pussy willow catkins in spring, are rather inconspicuous at this time of year: they go mottled (ie with yellow tinted leaves among green ones) and can shed quite early or hold onto some leaves till the end of leaf fall.

Another early tree to turn is hornbeam. It can produce quite large patches of tint early in October, often with the surface leaves turning over a large area while the ones underneath remaining green, but is usually starting to turn more generally by mid month. Colours include yellow, gold, and sometimes a reddish tinge. Full tint is not usually achieved until the first or second week of November, but in 2011 and 2012 all hornbeams 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 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 (or sometimes mid September). But field maple colour is at its best towards 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 and 2018 some field maple leaves also turned gold in mid to late October, and in 2018 I even saw red in one place.)

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 (by the start of the month in 2018).

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 slowly shedding leaves from early September (even August) onwards and can be bare as early as the third week on October. That being said some foliage invariably manages to hold on until in some places until the end of leaf fall. Their leaves can be almost any colour at any stage - that is yellows and golds among green leaves quite early in the autumn, or some green leaves left well into November. Blackthorn sometimes adds pinkish tones: notice too how its 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 some tint as early as late August and reliably does so in September. By the start of October it is producing an attractive variegated 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, even after the end of general leaf fall in places. 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 are another tree that reliably has a few tinted leaves scattered about amid the green ones in September or even late August. As early as the second week of October the tint then becomes more widespread on some trees, but limes are remarkably variable in their timing and some remain green till the end of the month or even into November. Colours are usually a very dull yellow until the second or third week of November, when the remaining foliage can suddenly turn a bright yellow as part of the final phase of leaf fall.

Sweet chestnuts can also show a bit of tint from late August or September and by mid October they can make a wonderful display of yellows, golds and browns. 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 tint 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 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. (2018 was an exception to this, with quite vivid colours in the second week of November.)

Leaves can start to fall from ash trees as early as mid September and by mid October you start to see quite a lot on the ground. 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 - though some trees in some locations hold onto foliage longer. Just occasionally, ash foliage turns a bright yellow, as happened in October 2008 and 2018 after cold nights early in the month, and to a much lesser extent in 2011 and 2012. At such times do not confuse ash 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, 2017 and 2018 (ie every recent year except 2016) rural wild cherries mysteriously failed to produce much colour at all, however (though street trees were unaffected). This was a particular mystery in 2018 when weather conditions included lots of sunshine and cold nights that should have been ideal for producing good hues.

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 (mid September in 2018) 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 and 2018; 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. Some dead leaves can remain on saplings or lower branches right through the winter, however, while beech hedges that have been clipped in the past year retain a full set of dead leaves until spring.

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, or even from mid September. 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 and 2018, 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, 2017 and 2018) 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. As with beech, a few dead leaves may then remain on lower branches or saplings of oak right through the winter.

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 start showing tinted leaves as early as the end of August and fairly often does so in mid September but in general its foliage 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 brighter yellow at the end of leaf fall. 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 pale yellow tints) since early October (occasionally in a small way from late September). Towards the end of leaf fall their enormous leaves – some as big as a soup plate – make the city streets slippery.

Another late survivor is 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 with some faint yellow tints, but right towards the end of leaf falls it can sometimes produce quite good yellow (or even yellowy-gold) colours, as was the case in 2018. From a distance it can be 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:

© Peter Conway 2006-2018 • All Rights Reserved

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