Autumn Color, Viewing Andromeda Galaxy, and Other Late Fall Events

In this installment of his regular column, the author contemplates the contributions of maple trees to autumn color, conditions for viewing the Andromeda galaxy, and other fall events.

| October/November 1994

146 autumn color - sugar maple

Every year in October and November, sugar maple trees make a spectacular contribution to autumn color. 


There are so many different places in the United States and the rest of the world with lovely autumn color displays and so many trees with outstanding colors. But let's be honest: The locale most famous for awesome fall leaf hues is Vermont and the tree most famous is the sugar maple.  

The World's Most Beautiful Tree?

Over 40 years ago, Rutherford Platt wrote American Trees; A Book of Discovery , a volume in which he described several hundred species with great eloquence and with truly unsurpassable enthusiasm. But among countless favorites was there a "best" tree? He wrote, "If you would see perfection, go look at the maple. It is like truth made into the form of a tree." And about one particular kind of maple: "Sugar maple is [the] most successful tree, and contender for the title of most beautiful tree in the world."

I feel sure that by "successful," Platt here meant successful at being the artistic essence of what a tree should be. I say this because the sugar maple tree is not most successful in the more prosaic sense of being able to establish itself in a great variety of climates.

As Platt himself notes elsewhere, the sugar maple is not a big-city tree; it needs fresh, pure air. And it has other requirements, for unlike the also beautiful and colorful red maple (which is more tolerant of different soil types), it does not grow all over the eastern United States. One authoritative guide says it grows south to North Carolina and Tennessee, west to eastern Kansas, and in localized areas of northwestern South Carolina and northern Georgia. A map shows it extending to southern Missouri but surprisingly not into Arkansas. (Would any of our readers beg to differ?) Platt also notes that the sugar maple is a distinctively American tree; it will not grow in England.

Platt goes on to explain what perfect balance there is in all parts of a maple, from overall design to smallest detail, and how healthy and successfully adjusted to its environment the maple is. The wood is one of the very best for furniture and for firewood. All of these attributes are preeminently true of the sugar maple ("the queen of firewood," it doesn't throw out sparks). In addition, there is of course the tree's role as the source of the best sap for maple syrup. But the time to tap for syrup making is early spring.

In autumn, the sugar maple leaves flame first with gold, then start adding orange, and finally might (or might not) finish with red. A maple with red leaves is more likely to be red maple than sugar maple, but the variety of the sugar maple's colors is wonderful — and so is stopping at orange. After all, orange is the perfect complement to the blue sky of clear, sunny days. And it is the clear, sunny days that are best — in concert with clear, cold nights — for inducing bright colors.

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