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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 - extends 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 foliage 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 ones). 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 generally happens in the last stages of leaf fall. 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. 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 this is sometimes true of lower branches and saplings. In addition, dribs and drabs on field maple, birch, crack willow, white willow, goat willow, weeping willow, sweet chestnut, alder and larch regularly last after the main leaf fall is over, something that is occasionally true of lime, sycamore and hornbeam.

Examples include 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2017: in all these years peak autumn colour was in the third week of November. However, 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. In 2016 it was mainly oak, with some lingering birch and dribs and drabs on hazel, weeping willow and field maple, some remaining into the second week of December. In 2017 some oak leaves survived into second week of December, with isolated dribs and drabs on hazel, field maple, larch and weeping willow until the end of November.

In 2019 the first two weeks of November saw the peak autumn tinting. After this oak was the main source of colour, with a fair amount of its foliage lasting till the end of the month before largely going bare at in the first week of December. Weeping willows also lasted till the end of November and in a few cases into the first few days of December, as did small amounts of birch, hazel, field maple, goat willow and alder.

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 into December 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 till late in November.

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.

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 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). 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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