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Fall Of The Leaves

( Originally Published 1927 )



It is November, and the glory of the woods is departed. Dull browns and purples show where oaks still hold their leaves. Beech trees in sheltered places are still dressed in pale yellow. The elfin flowers of the witch hazel shine like threads of gold against the dull leaves that still cling. The trees lapse into their winter sleep.

Last week a strange thing happened. The wind tore the red robes from our swamp maples and sassafras and scattered them in tatters over the lawn. But the horse-chestnut, decked out in yellow and green, lost scarcely a leaf. Three days later, in the hush of early morning, when there was not a whiff of a breeze perceptible, the signal, "Let go!" came, and with one accord the leaves of the horse-chestnut fell. In an hour the tree stood knee deep in a stack of yellow leaves; the few that still clung had considerable traces of green in them. Gradually these are dropping, and the shining buds remain as a pledge that the summer story just ended will be told again next year.

Perhaps such a sight is more impressive if one realizes the vast importance of the work the leaves of a summer accomplish for the tree before their surrender.

The shedding of leaves is a habit broad-leaved trees have learned by experience in contact with cold winters. The swamp magnolia is a beautiful evergreen tree in Florida. In Virginia the leaves shrivel, but they cling throughout the season. In New Jersey and north as far as Gloucester, where the tree occurs sparingly, it is frankly deciduous. Certain oaks in the Northern states have a stubborn way of clinging to their dead leaves all winter. Farther south some of these species grow and their leaves do not die in fall, but are practically evergreen, lasting till next year's shoots push them off. The same gradual change in habit is seen as a species is followed up a mountain side.

The horse-chestnut will serve as a type of deciduous trees. Its leaves are large, and they write out, as if in capital letters, the story of the fall of the leaf. It is a serial, whose chapters run from July until November. The tree anticipates the coming of winter. Its buds are well formed by midsummer. Even then signs of preparation for the leaf fall appear. A line around the base of the leaf stem indicates where the break will be. Corky cells form on each side of this joint, replacing tissues which in the growing season can be parted only by breaking or tearing them forcibly. A clean-cut zone of separation weakens the hold of the leaf upon its twig, and when the moment arrives the lightest breath of wind—even the weight of the withered leaf itself—causes the natural separation. And the leaflets simultaneously fall away from their common petiole.

There Ere more important things happening in leaves in late summer than the formation of corky cells. The plump green blades are full of valuable substance that the tree can ill afford to spare. In fact, a leaf is a layer of the precious cambium spread out on a framework of veins and covered with a delicate, transparent skin—a sort of etherealized bark. What a vast quantity of leaf pulp is in the foliage of a large tree !

As summer wanes, and the upward tide of sap begins to fail, starch making in the leaf laboratories declines proportionately. Usually before midsummer the fresh green is dimmed. Dust and heat and insect injuries impair the leaf's capacity for work. The thrifty tree undertakes to withdraw the leaf pulp before winter comes.

But how?

It is not a simple process nor is it fully understood. The tubes that carried the products of the laboratory away are bound up with the fibres of the leaf's skeleton. Through the transparent leaf wall the migration of the pulp may be watched. It leaves the margins and the net veins, and settles around the ribs and mid vein, exactly as we should expect. Dried and shrivelled horse-chestnut leaves are still able to show various stages in this marvellous retreat of the cambium. If moisture fails, the leaf bears some of its green substance with it to the earth. The "breaking down of the chlorophyll" is a chemical change that at-tends the ripening of a leaf. (Leaf ripening is as natural as the ripening of fruit.) The waxy granules disintegrate, and a yellow liquid shows its colors through the delicate leaf walls. Now other pigments, some curtained from view by the chlorophyll, others the products of decomposition, show themselves. Iron and other minerals the sap brought from the soil contribute reds and yellows and purples to the color scheme. As drainage proceeds, with the chemical changes that accompany it, the pageant of autumn colors passes over the woodlands. No weed or grass stem but joins in the carnival of the year.

Crisp and dry the leaves fall. Among the crystals and granules that remain in their empty chambers there is little but waste that the tree can well afford to be rid of—substances that have clogged the leaf and impeded its work.

We have been mistaken in attributing the gay colors of autumnal foliage to the action of frost. The ripening of the leaves occurs in the season of warm days and frosty nights, but it does not follow that the two phenomena be-long together as cause and effect. Frost no doubt hastens the process. But the chemical changes that attend the migration of the carbohydrates and albuminous materials from the leaf back into twig and trunk and root for safe keeping go on no matter what the weather.

In countries having a moist atmosphere autumn colors are less vivid. England and our own Pacific Coast have nothing to compare with the glory of the foliage in the forests of Canada and the Northeastern states, and with those on the wooded slopes of the Swiss Alps, and along the Rhine and the Danube. Long, dry autumns produce the finest succession of colors. The most brilliant reds and yellows often appear long before the first frost. Cold rains of long duration wash the colors out of the landscape, sometimes spoiling everything before October. A sharp freeze before the leaves expect it often cuts them off before they are ripe. They stiffen and fall, and are wet and limp next day, as if they had been scalded; all their rich cell sub-stance lost to the tree, except as they form a mulch about its roots. But no tree can afford so expensive a fertilizer, and happily they are not often caught unawares.

Under the trees the dead leaves lie, forming with the snow a protective blanket for the roots. In spring the rains will leach out their mineral substance and add it to the soil. The abundant lime in dead leaves is active in the formation of humus, which is decayed vegetable matter. We call it "leaf mould." So even the waste portions have their effectual work to do for the tree's good.

The leaves of certain trees in regions of mild winters persist until they are pushed off by the swelling buds in spring. Others cling a year longer, in sorry contrast with the new foliage. We may believe that this is an indolent habit induced by climatic conditions.

Leaves of evergreens cling from three to five years. Families and individuals differ; altitude and latitude pro-duce variations. An evergreen in winter is a dull-looking object, if we could compare it with its summer foliage. Its chlorophyll granules withdraw from the surface of the leaf.

They seek the Iower ends of the palisade cells, as far as they can get from the leaf surface, assume a dull reddish brown or brownish yellow color, huddle in clumps, their water content greatly reduced, and thus hibernate, much as the cells of the cambium are doing under the bark. In this condition, alternate freezing and thawing seem to do no harm, and the leaves are ready in spring to resume the starch-making function if they are still young. Naturally, the oldest leaves are least capable of this work, and least is expected of them. Gradually they die and drop as new ones come on. As among broad-leaved trees, the zone of foliage in evergreens is an outer dome of newest shoots; the framework of large limbs is practically destitute of leaves.



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