A GOOD THING about fall color is its variablility from year to year, and yet many a tree is more constant than people seem to know. The other day I was pointing out a spectacular sugar maple and my friend said it was amazing how well-colored it was this year. Not wishing to be argumentative (a vice to which gardeners are greatly given) I said nothing, but before we were finished I could tell my friend had no idea the sugar maple colors reliably the same every year.
It will come as a surprise to some of your friends that trees have a certain range of color, and certain individuals are even more specific in their coloring, regardless of the season.
For instance, the sour gum is always crimson, verging toward scarlet. Individual trees differ in intensity, and some years the color is a trifle more brilliant than in others, but the sour gum is never (for example) yellow or orange.
The sugar maple, to get back to it, is yellow-orange-coral-tomato, with a curious luminescence unmatched by most maples and by almost all other genera.
The ginkgo, as most gardeners know, has the identical sort of luminescence and so do birches. The ginko is clear canary yellow, a hint of acid, a hint of green in it. It's surprising that so firm and leathery a leaf has this quality of lighting up within itself. It is never any other color than brilliant yellow.
The hickory, on the other hand, is a tawny yellow. It is never clear and pure like the birch or ginkgo, and I always think of it as gold, though "gold" is one of those mysterious words that seems to mean nothing except a yellow that is deep and rich-looking. Nothing I can think of is more sumptuous than scattered hickories against a pine woods; I knew one once in which the little road through the woods was bordered with enormous clumps of michaelmas daisies in various tints of lavender.
The pin oak is subdued, like other oaks, but colors richly in a pretty wide spectrum embracing yellow and red, bronze, hints of purple. All the colors are rich, though, rather than brilliant. When the west sun shines through a pin oak in color I am always reminded of the colors of Breeder tulips.
The red and scarlet oaks stick more to red, and it is very rich, but again not brilliant like the maples.
You will never see one of these oaks in other combinations.
Dogwoods are inherently deep crimson, with touches here and there of brighter color. They vary in intensity according to the year.
One of the most beautiful of fall trees when it colors well (as it rarely does) is the hackberry which turns chartreuse and is startling enough to be seen half a mile away. Usually it turns greenish-dead-brownish, but in its exceptional years it is gorgeous.
Persimmons run to paint-pots, like oaks only more brilliant and usually with a lot of orange, and the sweet gums run from yellow to purple, usually with plenty of red. The sweet gum seems to me to vary more, according to individual specimens, than most other trees. Some are not especially showy, while others are sometimes the most brilliant of all colored trees in late October.
Timing varies, too. Ordinarily the red maple has finished its color display of red and orange -- only a few leaves still on the branches -- when the great somber gorgeous oaks do their act. This year my oak preceeded my maple in coloring strongly. When these things happen -- things out of sequence -- i always begin to worry the oak is dying or some other dire event is in the works. But as far as I know, these things just happen.
Many trees do not color very much, no matter what the season. The willow oak never does much more than a half-hearted tawny yellow-brown, and sometimes it stays green till the leaves drop. The laurel and river oaks often do the same, though I once knew a river oak that only colored late in December, when most of its leaves had fallen, but the few it retained until March were reddish.
There can be great beauty in lesser plants, too -- apples, roses, grape vines (some of which turn orange and purple in good years), crape myrtles, fringe trees. It is always well, considering the temporary nature of life, to take a few hours off every fall (excuses come readily to most inhabitants of this capital, I believe) to see the leaves in splendor.