Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Bicoastal Oaks

The 2018 fall foliage season was a bust.
Many friends on each coast - - and points in between - - said colors were muted or the leaves just turned brown and dropped.
Even at the height of fall foliage season in October, this view in Washington County, New York was underwhelming.

Oak trees, however, saved this disappointing fall foliage season. 
Before this year, I thought that, if fall foliage was a television series, that the moment the oaks appeared it would be a great time to get food and drink in the kitchen.  So many oak leaves are brown and leathery.
Without the brighter leaves of other species, there are less distractions from the great qualities of oaks. 
Before going much further, one of the foremost qualities of oaks, according to my friend John Graham, a Forester for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in Cortland, NY, is the number of different, sometimes almost wacky varieties.  “There are,” John explained, “over 600 species of oak worldwide and over 90 in the United States.”  In New York, red and white oaks are common.  The South is home to the majestic live oak.  The West coast is home to the: California black oak; coast live oak; valley oak; and canyon oak. 
A few weeks ago, Dorothy and I were driving to meet our friends Jack and Nancy.  Along the way, in the fading daylight, we saw red oak leaves spiraling to the ground.  Oak leaves tend to be long and narrow.  Their bottom edge is swept back like a fighter plane wing.  In calm air, an oak leaf spirals down rather than waft or parachute down, as does a maple leaf. 
Painting by J. Rowen
Even though so many oak trees go almost the entire winter with tough drab leaves, some oaks at this time of year have unexpectedly bright colors.  The brightness intensifies when the tree is in direct morning sunlight, as was the case in this photo of an oak after a recent sunrise.

Once oak leaves - - or any other leaves - - hit the ground, the first concern for most people is managing them.  Low-cut grassy yards are a tradition - - and a requirement for those who live in tick or snake country.  Leaves must be removed or mulched, or they will smother the grass.
As the photograph below, from my friend Ken Relation, shows, dealing with leaves can be a long task.  Of raking, my friend Steve Jaffe says “It doesn't matter where the leaves get placed. It seems we are at the intersection of the four winds. They just keep coming from all directions.”

Photograph by Kenneth Relation
During the fall, there’s a lot of pressure to get all the work done before the snow flies or the temperatures drop.  But if you have a minute to look at the leaves on the ground, you will see a great variety of colors, shapes and sizes.

The round lobes on these oak leaves are a good clue that they came from a white oak.
While researching this post, I spoke to my friend Jennifer Tiara, a landscape architect at the California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS).  When she heard about Ken’s and Steve’s situation, she said, “I feel like your friends as I have 3 large oak trees in the backyard and have leaves and acorns dropping all over the place.” “But the colors are changing,” she continued, “and to see the bright yellows and reds and purples from the Chinese pistache, maples, purple leaf plum and oaks - - it’s a great time of year in northern California.”

John explained that trees have smaller leaves at the top and larger at the bottom.  “Leaves that are lower in the tree,” he said, “are larger to maximize the area to catch sunlight and sustain the tree.” 
"Some people think the smaller size makes it easier for the leaf to avoid overheating,” he said, “Others think the smaller size allows sunlight to pass through to the lower leaves."

Some Westerners have less of a leaf problem than others.  Jennifer said the coast live oak and canyon oak keep their leaves year-round.
The canyon oak keeps its leaves year 'round.


  1. Well, friends are reading and commenting. Thanks to Bill Coomes and Bob Laroche for reporting in. Bill lives in Indiana and shared the following observation, "Fall colors here were very late and very brief.
    I did witness some nice foliage on my way to Alpena Minnesota." Bob said that Maine had a strong fall foliage season. If anyone else has experiences to share, let me know and I will put it somewhere in the post or in the comments!

  2. I concur with your assessment JR. Both in the Finger Lakes and Allegany Co. it seemed that the oaks were the highlight of this year's leaf show.

  3. My husband knows John Graham. He's walked our property and has seen him at NYFOA meetings. Thanks for the new perspective on the design of the oak leaf.

  4. Carolann: thanks for reading and glad your husband knows John. Isn't he a great guy? I did not know your family had a NYFOA connection. That's a great organization.

  5. I am re-reading this post and still love it! What excellent info and fantastic photos! Great job!