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  • Wherefore the fall that makes fall, fall?

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    Tags: trees, autumn, botany, horticulture, grounds

    Created: 10/8/2012      Updated: 8/10/2016

    The last, tremulous notes of the ice cream truck have faded into the distance. Sales of fun-sized candy bars are spiking. And all across this great nation, people are attaching their egos to teams of large, colorfully outfitted men battling over oblong balls. Yes, fall is here, and leaves are raining to the ground like opponents’ home runs onto the bleachers of Wrigley Field.  But why? Why would otherwise perfectly reasonable trees decide to shamelessly expose their naked limbs? (In front of the saplings, no less!)

    Fallen leaves on museum grounds

    Thanks, guys. You know I'm gonna have to rake that, right?

    Well, winter is hard on us all. For plants, the main problem is water, which, like most people, becomes sedentary and expands during cold weather. Sedentary water (by which I mean ice and snow) can’t be absorbed by a plant’s roots. So when the ground is frozen, water lost through its leaves can’t be replaced.  Most plants in our area avoid the problem by stripping bare.

    Tree with fall colors

    As for expansion, water is quite odd in that it becomes less dense when it freezes, so the same amount of water takes up more space when it becomes ice. This is a big deal for plants, since it causes their cells to quite literally explode as the water inside them swells. Try freezing a salad and you’ll know what I mean.

    So instead of risking death by dehydration or cell destruction, a clever tree ditches its leaves for the winter. But, you say, ever the contrarian, what about evergreens? Well, your average pine or spruce has small leaves with thick 'skin' to slow water loss. And it's quite industrious, churning out resins and antifreeze compounds to prevent cell damage. Deciduous (leaf-losing) trees can't be bothered to spend as much energy on such nonsense. What antifreeze they do get around to manufacturing is concentrated in their buds in preparation for spring.

    Tree with fall colors

    All this hard work gives evergreens a competitive advantage in early spring, when temperatures are warm enough for efficient photosynthesis. Deciduous trees can’t get moving until they stop hitting the snooze button and get to work cranking out leaves, while Joe Spruce is already soaking up the vernal sun and adding inches. The tables turn in summer, when the larger leaves of deciduous trees allow them to collect more light and grow faster than our work-a-day friend Mr. Spruce. These differing strategies are one reason evergreens dominate the landscape of northern latitudes. Short summers don’t allow those deciduous layabouts enough time to catch up.  

    Seth Harper - Museum Horticulturist

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