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November leaf fall and autumn colour

Other November pages: Bushes, berries and seedsFlowers Birds and insectsWeather

Picture: beech. Click here for more autumn colour photos.

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.

In particular it is often in the second to third week of the month - though sometimes as early as late October - that beech woods come into their full glory. This occurs when the gold and yellow colours of the foliage - visible on stand-alone trees and external faces from mid October - extend right down to path level in the woods. When this happens, the scene is a riot of wonderful tints, but the effect often does not last long, with the leaves soon falling or being blown off by gales.

Otherwise in the last stages of leaf fall the main colour is coming from oak (gold and then rusty brown), hazel (a mix of green and rather muted yellows, though sometimes 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 reddish) can also last till relatively late in some locations, as can a few golden leaves on sweet chestnut and some dull yellow leaves on sycamore (usually smaller trees). Other trees that reliably have some foliage left at this time include alder (whose leaves never tint and whose remaining leaves can look a bit invisible amidst its welter of cones and catkin buds) and London plane (a street/park tree but quite a widespread one, with generally muted tints). Weeping willows are robust too, tinting only slightly (rarely going a stronger yellow or even yellowy-gold) and usually not going bare until after the end of general 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 hue - something that typically happens in the last ten days of November. Once on the ground, the needles make a vibrant display on the woodland floor. Other fallen leaves that make colourful carpets (as well as mitigating the effects of mud and obscuring some woodland paths) include field maple, Norway maple, lime and hazel (yellow); hornbeam (yellow or gold); and sweet chestnut and oak (copper or gold). Of course the colours soon fade, and the leaves are pulled down into the earth by worms to be consumed, but beech leaves carpet woodland with coppers and golds throughout the winter.

(See Tree by tree - 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. For tinting/leaf fall on shrubs see November bushes, berries and seeds).

The last lingering leaves

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 (see December woodland). In particular oak can retain dead leaves on its branches for some time after other leaves have fallen, and on saplings or lower branches they sometimes remain all winter. Beech hedges that have been trimmed in the previous year will also keep dead foliage all winter, and again this is sometimes true of lower branches and saplings. In addition, dribs and drabs on hazel, field maple, birch, goat willow, weeping willow, sweet chestnut, alder and (as noted above) larch regularly last after the main leaf fall is over, something that is sometimes true of lime, sycamore and hornbeam.

Sometimes the best autumn colour is a bit earlier. 2010, 2015 and 2020 all saw a sudden rush of colour at the end of October, with many trees bare by the end of the first week of November. In all three years oaks ignored the trend, however, and did not turn until the second or third week. The earlier peak did not stop some leaves on hazel, birch, field maple, goat willow, and weeping willow lasting into December, with weeping willow not bare until the second week of that month 2020. Larch in all three years was at its best in the last ten days of November, as usual.

In 2019 the peak autumn tint was in the first two weeks of November, after which oak was the main source of colour, with a fair amount of foliage lasting till the end of the month. In 2015 and 2021 some green leaves lasted on oak until the start of December and this was also true in 2005, when there was still 30 percent leaf cover even at the end of November.

Bare branches

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 the only tree with both cones and catkin buds, and you may see balls of mistletoe (particularly on poplar and lime, but sometimes also on apple and maples). Also last season's birds' nests: it is 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 crack 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.

More November pages:

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