The Seasonal Almanac: Scarlet Oak Foliage and Lake-Effect Snowstorms

The Seasonal Almanac covers astronomical events and nature, including scarlet oak foliage, lake-effect snowstorms, the Hale-Bopp comet and Leonid meteor.

| October/November 1996

The Seasonal Almanac shares astronomical events in October and November 1996, including scarlet oak foliage and lake-effect snowstorms. 

The Seasonal Almanac: Scarlet Oak Foliage and Lake-Effect Snowstorms

In much of North America, the annual blaze of fall foliage color is one of the most glorious of all natural phenomena. The western United States and Canada have their forests of gold—the aspens. But most famous of all is New England's palette of bright leaf colors (a "paint" of which considerable quantities run far south down the high ridges of the Appalachians). And of New England's trees, it is the maples that are best known and praised for their oranges and reds.

But New England's (and America's) greatest nature writer spent much of his essay "Autumnal Tints" praising another tree, which seemed to attract him as much as or even more than the maples. That tree is the scarlet oak.

It's easy to find copies of Thoreau's classic Walden at your local bookstore or library, but you may have to look harder to obtain a collection that contains his "Autumnal Tints" essay. Interestingly, Thoreau's Massachusetts is about the northern limit of the scarlet oak's range. It is seen down the coast to about Virginia and inland through the Carolinas and Georgia. Its range extends across much of the Midwest, too. But it is apparently not found high up in the Appalachians.

The scarlet oaks are among the last of the trees to change color and therefore stand out wherever they are—especially if you can climb a hill to look around. In his home region of northern Massachusetts, Thoreau says, the scarlet oaks reach their prime by about October 26, when other oaks' leaves have usually withered. The scarlet oaks, he writes, "have been kindling their fires for a week past, and now generally burst into a blaze." Most people have already gone in and "shut their doors, thinking that bleak and colorless November has already come, when some of the most brilliant and memorable colors are not yet lit."

But it is the scarlet oak's visibility amid the otherwise leaf-bare forests that Thoreau especially emphasizes: "When I rise to a hilltop, a thousand of these great Oak roses, distributed on every side, as far as the horizon! I admire them four or five miles off ... This late forest-flower surpasses all that spring or summer could do."

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