Saturday, December 22, 2012

It's the smell

hobbit2 We received over two inches of rain in the last week, but it came down gently, accumulating deliberately and slowly, soaking deep into the ground.  Because it rained more like a lamb than a lion, most of the colorful fall leaves are still hanging tough on the trees. A few came down, of course, accumulating wherever the wind and gravity pushed them. But, for the most part, the rain did all  of the good things that we appreciate it for, without  resorting to a blustery tantrum of unnecessary roughness.

As the temperatures have cooled towards what we expect for this time of year, the color transition of leaves has become less sporadic and more like the romantic notions of how it should be. Our Chinese pistachio trees are now expressing their individual personalities (yes, they do have them) that are more in tune with previous years, and many have not yet reached their peak coloration.

But this year, something is different.

What makes the recent days following the rain so special is the smell. During dry autumns, we get the crunch of leaves underfoot and the riotous eye candy of pigmented leaves, but we miss the earthy smells of the beginnings of decomposition. It's an unmistakable fragrance, one that you don't realize you've been missing until it reaches your nostrils. Take a walk past the Pistachio Grove to the Faul Suspension Bridge and you will be surrounded by it. The color of the fallen leaves is now intensified by the sheen of wetness, and the small accumulating drifts are calling out with a luscious ground level aroma. It's an experience of righteous, nose-worthiness.

The downed leaves look different, too. Now, fully saturated with rain, they lie on top of each other like warm buttered tortillas--completely limp and flat without an air gap to be found.  The surface of each individual leaf is both slick and sticky, making them slippery to walk on and impossible to rake. The moist leaf litter will transition to the even earthier smells of leaf mold, eventually cycling nutrients back to the trees that made them.

Late Autumn at the Arboretum is like a three dimensional, living, breathing, scratch-and-sniff painting.And we're all lucky to have the opportunity be part of it.

Kim Stone

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Leaf love

pistachio and aloe
December 9, 2012 in the Southern Africa Exhibit
Photo: Kim Stone
It's ironic that our appreciation for leaves grows as they become less valuable. We take for granted the miracle of photosynthesis that occurs in the micro-machinery within each green leaf, and then get all sappy and romantic when the chlorophyll production ceases, revealing the colorful pigments hidden within what is really a dying leaf. What once were models of efficiency--oxygen-emitting sugar factories--are now bruised shells of their previous selves. They no longer help the tree so the tree cuts them loose, but not before leaching out every last bit of energy the leaf has left. It sounds awfully mean-spirited, doesn't it? Yet, after a season of working so hard all season, the tree needs a break. Its loss is our gain.  

Barring an early freeze, or heavy rain or wind, changing leaves will hang on for weeks, gradually turning the colors that every Hollywood director feels obligated to show at least once as a backdrop in feature films. Autumn somehow communicates that needed sense of normalcy and stability. In a perfect fall season, leaf color develops slowly, gradually, and predictably, with leaves displayed on the tree as if posed. But not this year. At the Arboretum, the transition from green to yellow, orange, red and everything in between has been wildly variable. Our Chinese pistachios, for example, have had leaf color in all stages of gestation within a single tree and even between trees. One leaf, still full of vibrant summertime green, can be mixed in with dozens of others in confused pigments of plum, deep amber, or the tinny red of half-ripened strawberries. In late November, while the daytime temperatures were still warm, leaves were falling nearly as fast as they turned color. Many trees dropped them in erratic clusters, leaving a bewildering patchwork of color globs within the tree canopy.

But now, in mid-December, as the daytime and nighttime temperatures have finally cooled, our remaining pistachio trees seem to have regained control of their rudders. Leaf color is developing more evenly and homogeneously, particularly near the Smith Building, Demonstration Garden, and the Faul Suspension Bridge. It's now late enough (or early enough) for trees such as condalias and loquats to be in full bloom. Loquats, in particular, are perfuming great volumes of air in the Demonstration Garden and near the Herb Garden. Winter flowering aloes, such as Aloe elegans, are in full bloom and in need of bed sheets and frost blankets to protect the vulnerable flowers through the coming cold nights. Strongly fragrant paper white narcissus flowers are also opening in the Children's Garden and Demonstration Garden.

It's an interesting time of year with the remnants of fall and the harbingers of spring all colliding together near the shortest day of the year. With the low winter sun, lighting is almost cathedral-like, particularly when autumn leaves and flowers are back lit. It's not surprising, then, that photographers capture some of their moodiest and most expressive shots during this celebrated month of December. 

 Kim Stone

closeup of leaves
December 11, 2012