Pennsylvania fall colors far from the trees
By Andrea Sachs,
Lavender halos encircle tiny yellow sunbursts. Fields of tall grass glitter like precious metals. Red dots cling to branches as if the sky had drizzled cherry juice.
These are the other colors of fall, the B-side of foliage that also deserves an audience.
Based on the oohs and whoas issuing from the mouths of leaf-lookers, you’d think that Mother Nature had only three shades in her crayon box. Yes, the punchy yellows, oranges and reds of maples, poplars, beeches and other deciduous trees get the most attention. But the more demure flora — the wildflowers and grasses, the berries and cornstalks — are worthy of more than just a passing peep.
“It’s not slap-you-upside-the-head color,” said Miles Arnott, executive director of Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope, Pa. “It’s an understated subtlety. You train your eye to see it.”
To uncover these gentle accents, I ventured into the painterly landscape of Bucks County, Pa. Here, among the farms and forests, the local color wheel spins faster and faster as the days grow shorter and shorter.
All beauty has an ugly side.
Traditional fall foliage is easy to find (along the roads, in the parks, outside your hotel window), but it draws caravans of people who drive like snails. And the colors can be spotty: On my ride up to Pennsylvania last week, I saw only a light confetti in the groves of greenery.
At Bowman’s Hill, however, color was guaranteed. The catch: I had to turn my gaze from the highest boughs to the lower ground. Knee bends helped, too.
The 134-acre preserve was established in 1934 as part of the Washington Crossing Historic Park, a verdant memorial to the patriots who fought under George Washington in the Revolutionary War. Of the state’s 2,000 native plants, 800 to 1,000 of them grow in Bowman’s Hill, a forested ecosystem protected by a deer fence. Of those, a handful have designated fall as their debutante season.
“There’s a whole suite of plants that just bloom in the fall,” Arnott said as we chatted before a wall of windows inside the visitors center. One of the shining stars: asters. “There’s a lovely diversity of asters in the mid-Atlantic — white, pink and purple.”
Before I set out on the daily guided nature walk, Arnott prepared my eyes for the scene. He alerted me to the lipstick-red berries; the gold and bronze tufts of grasses; the go-light green of moss; and the stunning backdrop that ties it all together.
“The sapphire-blue sky brings out the beautiful fall colors,” he said, before handing me over to naturalist Mary Anne Borge.
The sky was unfortunately the color of cold porridge. But the rain seemed to electrify the plants. Mary Anne gathered our group of three in the preserve’s garden and led us directly to the pops of color. The asters weren’t going to be ignored.
To fully understand the plant before us, Mary Anne deconstructed the aromatic aster into its main parts: the lilac-hued ray flowers (which I mistakenly called the petals) and the sunny yellow and reddish-brown disc flowers (or, in amateur horticulturist vernacular, the furry bellybutton). She explained the difference in color: Yellow means that the aster is courting interested pollinators; the maroon shade says, “Closed for business.”
“You think of fall as the harvest season,” said Mary Anne. “It is for the plants, too.”
We could have spent the entire visit in that patch, but Mary Anne had spotted something in the nearby trees: holly berries as red as Atomic FireBalls. Across the way, she homed in on witch-hazel, whose flowers resemble leggy spiders in yellow tights. And around the trail’s bend, she pointed to the promise of spring.
“Buds come out in the fall,” she said, as we inspected the Dijon mustardy buds of the bitternut hickory. “They are really eye-catching when the leaves are gone.”
During our hour-long walk, plus a quick jaunt into the field outside the deer gates, I imagined picking an autumnal bouquet. I would place in my imaginary wicker basket fistfuls of switch grass tipped in creamy white, plum-tinged leaves of Indian grass and the dangly golden seed heads of river oats. For a jolt of color, I’d add a sprinkling of yolk-yellow flowers from the butter-and-eggs plant and Indian currant berries as delicate as coral beadwork.
With such a symphony of color, I didn’t need the leaves. They could stay where they belonged, out of reach.
Robert Kolmus is a farmer by trade and dress (note the dirty worn overalls), but he speaks like a plein-air painter.
“The lesser pigments come through on dry, cool days and nights,” said Kolmus, a co-owner of Peace Valley Winery in Chalfont. “It’s better color than in wet and hot weather.”
Kolmus works at the hillside winery and pick-your-own-everything farm that Susan Gross founded in the late 1960s. The land covers 10 acres of fruits and vegetables that break out of the usual harvest bowl — for example, the Napa cabbage, which is sprouting robust green leaves amid the decay of approaching winter.
We started the visit in the eight-acre vineyard, surrounded by grape clusters dangling like chandeliers. Kolmus explained that when the grapes start ripening, the sugar levels rise and the acids fall, which enhances the colors.
The Concord grapes, a bright shade of green before Independence Day, now resembled pellets of purple paint. I ate one and wondered if it would give me Goth-stained lips. The Steuben grapes were in the final leg of their long journey along the color spectrum, a transformation from green to pink to red to the blue of a stormy sea. The entire picture was framed in gold.
“The grapevines have turned a golden color, and the browns of the drying corn,” said Gross when I asked her about her favorite fall palette. “The whole contrast against the blue skies with the puffy white clouds.”
Like Peter Rabbit, I hopped through the fields, stopping often to inspect the jarring colors: the glow-stick-bright stems of the Swiss chard, the eggplants as dark purple as a boxer’s bruised eye, the burning crimson peppers, the fluorescent red stalk of the pokeweed. “We don’t talk about that one,” said Kolmus, dismissing my aesthetic admiration for that last flora non grata.
As the sky darkened, the inside of my bag grew brighter. I was collecting autumn as quickly as I could, before it all disappeared.
“Dirt’s brown,” said Kim Arnold, manager of Hellerick’s Family Farm. The field of dried corn husks we were gazing at, on the other hand, is “a nice tan shade.”
Arnold could work for J. Crew, the way she spun the color of the cornfields. But staring at the dried husks, I did see more of the chino shade than of the grime stuck to my boot.
The generations-old farm near Doylestown grows a striking assortment of pumpkins, gourds and squashes, including many that seem to have been born in a mad horticulturist’s lab. Example: the One Too Many, a pumpkin with a spray of red lines that evokes the bloodshot eyes of a late-night reveler.
I was in the market for a pumpkin and headed out to the field with laminated ID cards to help me match the species name to the soon-to-be-carved face.
The pickings were slimming down, but the cut-your-own zinnias did not seem eager to let go of summer. The flowers brightened the drizzly day with a splash of magenta, carrot orange and taffy pink.
I tiptoed through the upper levels of the patch, stepping around orange pumpkin heads, speckled and striped squashes and gourds with inky tops and bottoms. Despite the wealth of choices, I couldn’t commit.
Descending the short hill, I returned to the open-air marketplace, which featured rivers and hillocks of produce. I rummaged around the bins, sorting though a harvest bounty of goosenecks, lakotas, kakai and the tan squash the Amish bake into their pies. Then I found the One.
The turban pumpkin was dressed in the tri-colors of fall. It had four bumps on top and a rotund bottom. If I’d thrown it high into the air, it would have blended in with the treetop foliage. Instead, I set it beside me in the passenger seat of my car, where its colors were singular and spectacular in their own right.