The Nature of PEI
by Gary Schneider
One of the highlights of autumn in the Maritimes is the wondrous colours of many of our native trees and shrubs.
We often think of New England as the place to be for fall colours. Or Cape Breton, where autumnal beauty and Celtic music have been combined into a very exciting Celtic Colours tourist event that draws musicians and visitors from near and far.
But the colours of woodlands in Prince Edward Island can be equally stunning. Though we’ve removed many of our hardwood stands across the Island, there are still some beautiful areas, including Breadalbane, Souris, Caledonia and Richmond. Going for a drive in late September and October to see the fall colours is a ritual for many Islanders. It is like a travelling art show, only we are the ones doing the travelling.
As with many things, we can enjoy the beauty without understanding what we’re really looking at. Many of us don’t really know what species we are looking at, or what causes leaves to change from green to red, orange, yellow, purple, or brown.
When we look at a multi-hued hillside, whether in the Bonshaw Hills or the highlands of Cape Breton, the yellows are mainly the leaves of trembling aspen, white birch, eastern larch (our only conifer that loses its needles) and sugar maple. I think of this as distinguishing the deciduous trees from the deep greens of the spruce, fir and pine trees. Then come the more dazzling layers. Besides yellow, the sugar maple colours can range up to a bright orange, while the red maple certainly lives up to its name. Both add pizzazz to the canopy with bold splashes of colour There are many more colours that make up this rainbow. White ash has a purple cast to its leaves, sometimes light and sometimes very dark, and our native red oak shows everything from orange to brown.
It is not just the trees that make up this splendid palette. Many of our native shrubs are natural artists as well. The leaves of witch hazel, one of our rarest native shrubs, turn yellow towards the end of September. Once they drop, small, ribbon-like yellow flowers are suddenly visible.
Hobblebush is another rare native shrub that is worthy of our attention in the fall. Its large, heart-shaped leaves slowly change from green to purple and bronze.
Yet it is the staghorn sumac that really is the showman of all the native plants. The exotic compound leaves and the large red cones of seed are already eye-catchers. But when the sunlight lessens, the leaves seem to be capable of almost every colour in the rainbow—everything from yellow, red, orange and purple.
And what causes those striking changes in colour? During the summer, leaves are full of green chlorophyll, which turns sunlight into carbohydrates (sugars and starches) that feed the plants. When the temperatures drop and the amount of sunlight is reduced in the fall, the plants take back all that chlorophyll and the leaves show their true colours, depending on what pigments are present and what chemical changes occur.
Sometimes the season of colour is long, when cooler weather hits without a major wind storm. Other years, the leaves just seem to find their glory when a big blow releases them from the trees. In any case, the beauty is fleeting, best appreciated in the moment.
An autumn outing is a special thing, whether you’re looking for migrating birds, woodland plants, or just a splash of colour. Check out the scenic heritage roads, roll your windows down, and enjoy the beauty that surrounds us.