Fall foliage

Chokecherry tree leaves turn color along the Tongue River, providing a warm hue to the landscape.

Bob Krumm

The countryside has surely brightened up in the past week or two. The recent rains have caused the grasses to flourish and to diminish the overall dark tan shades of the grasslands. The biggest color change in the landscape results from the leaves of the shrubs and trees changing to fall colors.

The leaves are dying so that the green pigments from chlorophyll are fading out and the other pigments are coming into play: carotenoids and anthocyanins. According to a U.S. Forest Service brochure titled, Why Leaves Change Color, “Both chlorophyll and carotenoids are present in the chloroplasts of leaf cells throughout the growing season. Most anthocyanins are produced in the autumn in response to bright light and excess plant sugars within leaf cells.

“During the growing season, chlorophyll is continuously being produced and broken down and leaves appear green. As night length increases in the autumn, chlorophyll production slows down and then stops, and eventually all the chlorophyll is destroyed. The carotenoids and anthocyanins that are present in the leaf are then unmasked and show their colors.”

Having grown up in Michigan, I know that the deciduous forests of the eastern United States are rich in color when October rolls in. There are several species of maples in my home state, and they add touches of red, bright orange and scarlet. The oaks, hickories, aspens, birches, cherries, beeches, sycamores, walnuts and hickory nuts all contributed to a glorious tapestry of color ranging from dull brown to neon yellow to scarlet red with shades of green thrown in from the conifers.

I have been asked if I miss my home state and I answer, “No, I don't miss living there, but I would surely love to go back in October to view the autumn colors and gather black walnuts and hickory nuts and hunt ruffed grouse and woodcock.”

While Michigan may have all sorts of color on the grand scale, Wyoming and Montana have plenty of autumn color on a smaller scale. While we don't have scenes dominated by deciduous trees, we do have plenty of stream courses, woody draws, and canyons that have quite an array of trees and shrubs.

Some of the local plants turn color sooner than others. For the past three weeks I have noticed poison ivy has changed from glossy green to deep red or international orange. I imagine that most folks don't know how common poison ivy is along the Bighorn River, but there are stretches of the north bank of the river that are predominantly poison ivy. That vile vine sure paints a pretty picture from Snag Hole to Duck Blind Channel. With this windy, wet weather we are to receive this week, it is for sure that all the leaves will fall and the noxious color show will cease.

Some chokecherry bushes have changed color. One such bush at Kleenburn Park has turned the softest pastel pink and stands out from the green background like a flickering candle in a darkened church.

Another shrub that has great color is wild plum. There seems to be quite a spectrum of wild plum leaf shades from pale, soft yellow, to soft pink, to deep pink. There are even shades of light orange on some bushes.

Red osier dogwood has a deep maroon color this time of year which accents the glossy red branches of the shrub and its bright white berries.

Wild grape is common along the Bighorn River from Afterbay to Bighorn Rapids. Like most other deciduous plants in the region, its leaves turn a soft yellow color. Some of the vines are sporting dark blue grapes which provide a nice contrast of color to the leaves.

Green ash trees turn sooner than any other deciduous tree. The shiny green color of the ash seems to change to neon yellow almost overnight. The Good Luck Road has an abundance of green ash trees, especially along Rotten Grass Creek.

Though they shed their leaves soon after turning, boxelder trees have a nice soft yellow color to them. On Saturday just about all the boxelders along the Bighorn River had turned and lit up the stream course nicely.

Cottonwoods are the most common deciduous tree in the region. In general, cottonwoods turn color a little later than green ash and boxelder. While most cottonwoods have a bright, shiny yellow color, some trees have leaves that trend to light orange. Whatever the hue, cottonwoods provide the largest component of color on the autumn landscape.

With the coming of colder weather and accompanying winds, you might consider a scenic drive this weekend to take in the autumn colors. Hurry, the colors won't last long!

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