Autumn's earliest reds in these two Kentucky natives
In the earliest days of autumn, red leaves appear within the tangled, brushy fencerows of rural Kentucky roads. These bright spots of fall color are often provided by two native trees -- sumac, in its several species, and sassafras. I enjoy seeing them progress into an overall state of crimson as the season continues.
Sassafras (Sassafras albidium) can grow to be a large understory tree (up to 50 feet tall) in the woods. The larger sumacs, such as flameleaf (Rhus copallinum) and staghorn (Rhus typhina), can reach 35 feet of height in ideal conditions, such as at the sunny edge of a grove of trees. However, in the fencerows along roads, these trees don't often attain such heights.
Along the county and state roads, the road departments use regular mowing, brush cutters, and herbicides to discourage woody growth. Our regional electric company uses a horrible, aerial "bush hog" under power lines. It chops and breaks every growing thing to a 10-foot height. Farmers repair their fences and clear the trees and bushes from the fencerows from time to time.
These sorts of setbacks don't kill out the sumac and sassafras. Both these trees have extensive root systems that will shoot up new trees. Individual stems may perish, but sassafras and sumac colonies will persist as long as their root systems survive to send up root suckers. That explains the widespread occurrence of these two trees in the fencerows.
In addition, both trees produce fruit that is eaten by birds. When birds rest and roost on the fences and in the bushy growth of the fencerow, seed-laden droppings fall to the ground. This is one of nature's methods of planting new trees.
Sumac provides one of nature's most reliable autumn reds. The fall colors of sassafras include bright yellow, orange, red, and purple.