Autumn Leaves

(This column was first published in the October 11, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    When Doris and I drove to Alabama in late September, we were unprepared for what we observed in Southern Ohio and Northern Kentucky. Instead of the usual bright greens interspersed with a few reds and yellows of early turning foliage, we found an almost uniform brown -- the brown of dead leaves. Clearly that region suffered from this summer's drought even more than did Western New York.

    Returning early this month we again passed through that bleak region, continuing on into Northern Ohio and Western New York to find the first evidence of our annual fall spectacle of leaf coloration. It will be interesting to see the effect of that only recently broken drought on the leaves here. Some have predicted an early color peak but as I prepare this column I see little evidence to support that.

    Doug Bassett, the Letchworth Park naturalist, records October 10-20 as the usual period for the park's best colors. (Taking advantage of that, next Saturday park volunteers and interpretive staff together with Eastman Kodak representatives will sponsor a 10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Fall Foliage Photo Walk for camera enthusiasts.) From early signs, I suspect that Doug's records will serve as a good forecaster for this year.

    I highly recommend a trip to the Southern Tier and in particular to Letchworth and Allegany State Parks this month. If indeed the drought reduces the coloration, it may mean that it will be less spectacular but it will still be exceptional. I always come back from drives and hikes at this time of year with a near-religious sense that I have been exposed to the sublime. There is even a bonus in Letchworth: you can look out over the gorge to see turkey vultures -- still buzzards to many of us -- soaring below you, skillfully maneuvering through wind currents with their great wings.

    This is also a time for families to learn tree identification. Collect some of the colorful leaves and preserve them. There are several ways to do this. An older method is to flatten leaves between sheets of waxed paper and press under an old towel with a warm iron. Finally, cut the waxed paper around the leaf, leaving a border to maintain the seal.

    A second method is to dry leaves between sheets of paper toweling in a microwave. Experimentation will be necessary to determine the optimum timing but between one and three minutes should be sufficient. If the leaves still curl, your time is too short; if they scorch, too long. Seal your dried leaves with an acrylic art spray.

    You can also preserve leaves by soaking them in a mix of one part glycerin to two parts water for three to five days. No additional treatment is needed.

    Now that you have your leaves, you will wish to identify them. There are good keys available. For most a quick comparison with a text silhouette is all that you will need. Two excellent keys may be obtained from the Erie County Cooperative Extension Center in East Aurora. The easiest to use is by Buffalo News columnist Ken Brown. A more detailed key by May Theilgaard Watts may be purchased from local bookstores or outfitters. I rarely venture afield without my copy of the Watts book.

    When you collect your leaves you should associate them with the tree from which they dropped. When you find your tree, get a sense of its height and shape and its bark color and pattern. Those features will give you clues to that species’ identity in winter when its leaves are buried under the snow.

    But most of all, simply enjoy this wonderful season.-- Gerry Rising