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Tree by tree - the autumn sequence

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

Picture: field maple tinting. Click here for 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. Traditionally, these produced good yellow and gold colours in mid to late October, but from 2006 onwards were badly affected by the caterpillars of a leaf mining moth, which caused their foliage to shrivel from late summer onwards. This made them a very prominent sight in September and early October for all the wrong reasons. From a distance they looked like normally tinted trees but a closer view revealed the sad sight of curled-up dead leaves. In 2009, 2012 and 2015 some managed to beat the blight and produce reasonable leaf colour, however, and in 2019 there were yellow tints in places early in October and yellow and golds more widely in the last week of month and the first week of November. 2020 seemed to continue the trend, with trees nearly full yellow or gold (albeit with a few leaf mining blotches of their leaves) quite widespread in the second half of October.

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. The very similar white willows often do not shed to any significant extent 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, at most turning slightly yellowy. 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, or even in late September, often with the surface leaves colouring over a large area while the ones underneath remain green. It then usually starts to turn more generally 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. In 2020, exceptionally, a few turned bright yellow towards the end of October.

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, and some a mixture of the two - from quite early in October, or sometimes mid September. But field maple colour is usually 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, 2018 and 2019 some field maple leaves turned gold in mid to late October, however, while in 2020 this happened quite widely in the second, third and fourth week of October, with most of the rest of the foliage turning bright yellow at this time too. In 2019 there were extensive red tints, something I saw once in 2018 and a few times in 2020.

Our other wild maple, Norway maple, can easily be mistaken for sycamore but can be distinguished 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. In 2020 it tinted from early October and many were bare by the fourth week of the month, though some small areas of tinted leaves lasted in places till mid November: gold and a few red tints were seen quite widely that year.

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 then is often bare by the end of the month (by the start of the month in 2018, the third week in 2019 and 2020).

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 and contribute a lot to autumn colours 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 - yellows and golds among green leaves quite early in the autumn, or some green leaves left well into November. Blackthorn sometimes adds pinkish tones, and both species can also produce red leaves in years that are good for anthocyanins (see Introduction to Leaf Fall). Notice too how blackthorn twigs, which are soft and flexible in summer, harden into sharp thorns as the leaves fall.

Elder is another very common shrub, but loses its leaves very inconspicuously, as it usually does not tint at all beyond showing some very slight lightening or yellowing. It is can be bare as early as mid October, but sometimes retains a very few leaves on its upper twigs even 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 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 into late November. Once the leaves have gone you can see the buds of next year's catkins and, on some trees, desiccated seed cylinders, 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 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) shed leaves gradually, starting in August or early September, and finishing usually by the end of October or the first week of November. They mostly do not tint, though sometimes they produce a muddy yellow, occasionally a brighter hue, and once fallen the leaves can be quite a vibrant yellow. Lombardy poplars shed at roughly the same time, though possibly finishing slightly later. Usually they only manage a very faint yellow at best, but can produce a muted golden colour under sufficient provocation. On the whole their leaf fall is not much noticed, however.

On the subject of inconspicuous trees, several that are so prominent in the early spring are hardly noticed at this time of year. Apple trees, including wild crab apples, which are covered in blossom in April, shed slowly during October without any significant tinting, while the leaves of common whitebeam, so noticeable for their greyish colour when they come out in late April, often just shrivel up before falling. They can occasionally (as in 2020) produce some dull yellow tints before doing so, and once on the ground are distinguishable by being brown on one side and grey on the other. Cherry plums, which seem so numerous in March when their blossom comes out, seem to go a variegated yellow and green, but are hard to tell apart from blackthorns. Rowans - more often a street tree in this part of the world, but sometimes found in the wild, are already shedding early in September and can produce some gold and even pinkish tints: they are often very thin by mid month, but may then hold onto a few leaves until late in leaf fall. Lastly elms can produce a fine yellow, which must have presented a magnificent spectacle before Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s killed most of them off: nowadays they mostly lurk as shrubs in hedgerows, where at a casual glance they are easy to mistake for hazel.

Back with common countryside trees, 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. However, they are a quite a variable tree and it is a feature of the end of leaf fall that long after all the ashes seem to have gone completely bare you come across one that has just shed a load of fresh green leaves.

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: they are generally bare by the end of the first week of October, however. 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. This usually happens towards the end of October, but some trees can turn much earlier or later. Conditions only seem to be right to produce this effect in some years however: in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017 and 2018 rural wild cherries failed to produce much colour at all, 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 good hues. In contrast the relatively mild and wet October 2019 produced fairly good cherry colours, and 2020 was an excellent year for them.

The other great autumn spectacle in the south east are beech woods. The transformation of these to deep yellows and golds, and then on to a fine copper colour, is breathaking if you can catch it at just the right time. There are two phases. From mid to late September some years, and certainly from early October, the exposed faces of beeches - the trees on the edge of woods or standing alone in fields - can already be showing good areas of tint. 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, at 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, 2015 and 2020; in the first and second week of November in 2019, in the second week of November in 2007 and 2018; in the second to third week in 2017, and in the third week 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, 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 remaining almost entirely green in October, though it can show patches of tint right from the start of October, or even from mid September. Don't confuse it in this phase of autumn with the non-native pin oak, often planted in parks: this has much larger leaves and produces striking gold and copper colours, peaking in mid October.

A few native oaks may be more widely tinted or even bare by the end of October: however full tint mostly occurs in mid November - in the second week from 2007 to 2012 and in 2017 and 2018, in the second and third week in 2019, and the third week in 2006, 2013, 2014 and 2016. In 2020 quite a few were fully gold in the first week of November, with most of the rest following in the second week. 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.

Some oaks then hang on to dead leaves for a time after leaf fall is over - usually into the first ten days or so of December. As with beech, a few leaves may then remain on lower branches or saplings 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 some minor flecks of dull yellow foliage as early as the end of August and fairly often does so in September, but generally just remains in this state, thinning slowly and still with a lot of green leaves, until the end of leaf fall. (Note the way that individual leaves sometimes turn yellow from the outside edge inwards). It can sometimes produce a brighter yellow at the end of leaf fall. Once the foliage has 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 still find a lot of foliage 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. In the second half of October 2019 London planes produced quite bright yellow and gold colours, and even some red tints, but this is very unusual.

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 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, routinely having some foliage into November and even the first week of December. Mostly it sheds green, or with some faint yellow tints, but right towards the end of leaf fall it can sometimes produce quite good yellow or even yellowy-gold colours, as was the case in 2018 and, to a lesser extent, 2020. From a distance it can be hard to tell if this is coming from its leaves or from its bare yellow twigs, however.

One last hardy tree, often overlooked but producing a lovely gold colour when it finally turns, is the larch, the only needle-bearing tree to lose its leaves. This only happens at the end of the leaf fall, typically in the second or third week of November. Once fallen, the needles make a vibrant orange carpet on the woodland floor.

More October pages:


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