From the Archives: Up at the Tree House . . . Fall Colors to Enjoy

Education // September 11, 2018

Another article in an occasional series of articles that appeared in FOW’s publications in the past and still resonate with us today. This piece was written by Trish Fries, Environmental Education Program Specialist at the Wissahickon Environmental Center. This article first appeared in FOW’s Fall 2014 newsletter.

Summer is over, and with the long, cold winter approaching it’s time to enjoy nature’s final burst of color seen in its autumn leaves. A highlight of autumn at the Tree House is the brilliant display of reds and oranges of the Japanese maple understory. The Andorra Natural area, though not especially “natural,” is unique in many ways because of its history as the Andorra Nurseries.

Tucked among aging European beech trees, you can still find the Japanese maple trees lined up in the rows of a nursery field. A look at the nursery catalog from 1940 shows four species of Japanese maples, including red and thread-leaf varieties. Just outside The Cedars House Café is a spectacular specimen, no doubt planted during the building’s life as the nursery headquarters. The reds, oranges, and pinks of the Japanese maples are made up of delicate leaves shaped like tiny, long-fingered hands.

Many introduced plants have been imported and cultivated to appeal to our love of fall color. Japanese maples and burning bush are now found throughout the forest, reproducing by seed. The leaves and twigs are not preferred food by deer, so their numbers quickly multiply, competing for nutrients and sunlight with native plants. Those beautiful plants, are now considered invasive in our forest. While the Wissahickon Valley is filled with both native and introduced plants, the native plants have adapted to the climate and wildlife that uses them. Plants that provide quality food for migrating birds have brilliant fall colors that coincide with the migration, assuring that the plant is spotted, its fruit eaten, and the seeds spread to other areas.

Hidden along the Green Trail above Bell’s Mill Road is a special remnant of the nursery that is noticeable not because of its fall color, but because of its smell. Walk past the area of Katsura trees (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) in the fall and you may think you are at a county fair–the smell of cotton candy is in the air. But no, the scent is coming from the yellow leaves of the Katsura tree. Children have been known to rub the leaves on their arms to have their own cotton candy perfume!

Take a walk in the next few weeks, or sit on the porch of The Cedars House, and take in one last burst of color before the grays and browns dominate the winter forest.