(Do you need an introductory paragraph? No. No you do not. So I’m not writing one. If you’re unsure about what subject matter you will encounter in the following paragraphs, please reread the title. Thank you for your understanding. This really saves me a ton of work.)
You remember how you were taught in school that chlorophyll masks the other pigments present in leaves, and that when chlorophyll production stops in the fall, these pigments become visible? Of course you do, because you loved science, which makes you wholly superior to those mouth-breathers who’ve forgotten all about leaf pigmentation. But did you ever stop to wonder what those other pigments are doing in the leaves in the first place? Well, it turns out they might be doing lots of things. Like murder. Or something more benign, but equally fascinating, like foliar flagging.
Let’s say you’re a sumac tree. You want birds to eat your berries, because they will then fly away, pooping out your progeny hither and yon like tiny, gross little Johnny Appleseeds. So you make your berries bright red and obvious to hungry birds. But birds are kind of dumb, so why stop with the berries? Why not turn your leaves a similar color, so even the most dim-witted and unobservant avian can’t help but notice you and your pretty berries, free for the munching? Turns out a number of trees and shrubs use this strategy – certain dogwoods and Virginia creeper to name a couple.
Conifers That Didn’t Get the Memo
Ever have one of those dreams where you show up to school naked and everyone else is fully clothed? And then your substitute teacher shows up, except it’s Henry Kissinger in a clown costume, and he announces that he’s your real father? No? Just the first part, you say… Huh… Anyway, if you’re a Dawn Redwood, a Larch, a Tamarack, a Bald Cypress, or a Chinese Swamp Cypress, (or a Ginkgo, if you wanna be inclusive) you live out that archetypal Freudian quagmire every fall. All the other conifers are standing there fully clothed in green needles, while yours are falling away, one by one, until there you are all starkers, just in time for the coldest part of the year. Why? Aren’t there good reasons why needle-leaved plants are typically evergreen? Yes, but look at the big picture. There are advantages to having needle-shaped leaves: they retain water better, they’re less attractive to insects, and they take fewer nutrients to produce than broad leaves. And there are advantages to being deciduous: it avoids problems with freezing and over-drying in winter, reduces herbivory, and prevents breakage from snow and wind. So it’s not too surprising that some trees can make the seemingly contradictory “deciduous conifer” lifestyle work for them.
Free Stuff You Can Eat
Autumn is not just about pretty colors, falling leaves, and the sudden appearance of pumpkin spice everything. The fruits of many plants also mature at this time of year, making it the perfect time for nature snacking. Those aforementioned sumac berries, for example, make a nice tea. (You’ll want to sweeten it. It’s sour from malic acid, the same stuff that’s in a sour apple.) Or try some hackberries – they’re ripe when they’re smooth and dark brown. If you value your teeth, don’t bite down hard; just chew off the outer coating. You’ll see why they’re also called sugarberries.
If you’re feeling really adventurous, try a yew berry, but DO NOT EAT THE SEED INSIDE!! It’s poisonous. I’m serious about this, guys. Deadly. Freakin’. Poisonous. However, the flesh of the red ‘berry’ (not really a berry, but that’s a subject for a different blog post) is sweet, non-toxic, and sort of gelatinous. To be safe, squeeze the seed out, throw it away, and lick the fruity goop off your fingers. You’ll be glad you dared yourself to try it.