Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Two trees with red leaves in the fall

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.


3 comments -- please add yours:

Jim said...

Sassafras may be hard to kill, but they sure are hard to get started. I'm a bit of a tree nut, so I've been doing my best to plant natives all over my corner of suburban Lexington. The sassafras I've been trying to get started on the railroad embankment have given me the most trouble.
The taproots are hard to transplant, even on nursery stock (Shooting Star nursery in Georgetown, KY) That one struggled for a year, so I added one my father in-law dug off his property. The wild one seemed to do better, though both suffered damage through that early thaw we had two Januaries ago and the ice storm this spring.
The strange weather this year really must have had an effect, because both seemed to struggle with chlorosis all summer. I tried a couple of treatments, and seemed to have the best luck greening them back up with a foliar epsom salt spray. That said, I'll be surprised if either makes it through the winter. I'll probably try again with a fresh crop in the spring, as I'm really looking for the fall color, and maybe some homemade gumbo file' powder.

Genevieve said...

Jim, according to Gary Hightshoe's Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America, iron chlorosis is a frequent problem with sassafras. He also says that they are sensitive to soil compaction and that they prefer an acid soil (ph 6.0-6.5).

Hightshoe comments that sassafras are difficult to transplant, but can be transplanted with "ball and burlap" technique in early spring.

A search of Google books for how to propagate sassafras reveals a number of old-time books that recommend root cuttings and seeds as the best means of propagation. Practical Woody Plant Propagation for Nursery Growers by A. Bruce Macdonald has some good information about doing a root cutting properly.

Eastcoastdweller said...

Sumac berries make a tasty lemonady drink --- just have to be sure that you are harvesting the right type of sumac!

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927)

Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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