Color My World

by | Aug 1, 2012 | Native Plants

I GREW UP IN NEW YORK, where one of the compensations for enduring the long and frigid winter ahead is several weeks in which the deciduous trees put on a great display of autumn color. But leaves aren’t the only things that change, and my 20-plus years in the Northeast gave way to more than 30 now in Central Texas, a place where most residents think that fall color is something that only people elsewhere get to enjoy. Once also of that opinion, I’ve come to see that this warmer clime has warmer hues late in the year too, though mostly on a more intimate scale.

Least in need of having people’s attention drawn to them, because their color can be so fabulous, are two trees. One is the aptly named Texas red oak (Quercus buckleyi), which can grow to 35 feet in height. Even the tree’s “scraggly cute” new leaves in the spring emerge red, a harbinger of what can happen after they’ve turned the expected green that carries them through to November or December. Then, after just the right pattern of rain, heat and cold (as was the case in 2008), the fully developed leaves turn bright yellow, orange and red, and a large Texas oak can rival anything the Northeast has to offer.

Smaller in size but more widespread is prairie flameleaf sumac (Rhus lanceolata), which is probably the single most reliable source of abundant fall color in Central Texas. Often seen even in urban areas on undeveloped lots, roadsides and along railroad tracks, this shrub or small tree may grow 20 feet tall but is usually much shorter, and its slender branches give it a delicate appearance. The tree’s compound leaves are 5 to 12 inches long, with seven to 17 narrow leaflets that each taper to a point. When fall comes, colors from the red end of the spectrum begin at the tips of the leaflets and soon spread toward the center of the leaf. Even the rachis, or central axis of the compound leaf, which in this species is segmented, flattened and winged, often turns a rich red.

The bright leaves contrast with the dark, dull red of the tree’s clusters of tiny fruits, and both play off against the frequent blue skies of autumn. The closely related Rhus copallinum (shining or flameleaf sumac) thrives in East Texas and throughout the eastern United States and into Canada, where it likewise turns bright colors in the fall.

Another shrub in the same genus is fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), which can reach 12 feet in height. Some people do find the plant aromatic, but the colloquial name polecat bush says that not everyone experiences the aroma as a pleasant one. Growing from California to Texas and south into Mexico, this species has compound leaves; the irregularly lobed shape of the three leaflets serves as one way to identify it. Some two dozen species of birds eat the plant’s fruit, from which, like the fruit of flameleaf sumac, another two-legged species, Homo sapiens, makes a refreshing drink that might be called sumac-ade. In the fall the leaves of fragrant sumac turn warm colors that range from yellow through dark red.

One other relevant tree is featured on the back cover: cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia), which can reach a height of 90 feet. It grows throughout the south-central portion of the United States and is so prolific in Central Texas that some people call it a trash tree. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder: Its conspicuously flanged branches are a curiosity, and its coarse leaves often emerge red in the spring. In the fall those leaves, now green, turn pale and take on a shade of dull yellow, but under the right circumstances the yellow can be more vivid and even shade into orange. Because cedar elm can grow so high, several mature trees side by side sometimes become a tall wall of yellow-orange in the fall.

Native plant aficionados appreciate the subtle shades of tan and brown taken on in the fall by grasses like bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus) and Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), but most people probably wouldn’t count that as “fall color.” They might feel the same way about another native grass, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), known for its bluish-green cast when the plant is young. Growing several feet tall over large parts of North America, this grass turns a light brown in the fall – or rather that’s the view from a distance, where small bits of even sharply contrasting colors can blend, but a close look at this grass confirms a different reality. While portions of some of its slender stalks may be tan and brown, others are orange or chartreuse or even scarlet. Add to that the blue – not of the little bluestem but of the big sky beyond – and the effect is a multicolor marvel.

“Sweet are the uses of adversity,” wrote Shakespeare, and with that in mind I’d like to mention two species that almost everyone considers to be nuisances but can redeem themselves a little in the fall for all the trouble they cause the rest of the year. One of those is greenbrier (Smilax bonanox), a slender green vine with sharp prickles that all too easily end up in the skin of walkers in fields and woods throughout the southeastern United States. The plant has wavy-margined, triangular or heart-shaped leaves that can grow to 4 inches, are stiff and somewhat waxy, and have a tendency to be mottled. They also have a tendency to turn yellow and orange late in the year, when the mottling adds a unique element to their attractiveness.

The second disliked or even dreaded species that redeems itself through color is poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). That most protean of plants grows as a forb, a bush and even a thick vine that can reach into the canopies of tall trees. Walk through the woods almost anywhere in central and eastern North America and there you’ll see it – or worse, not see it and end up walking through it and brushing against it. As all too many susceptible people have found out, the plant contains the oily allergen urushiol, which causes an itching, oozing rash. But the good news is that the three leaflets of poison ivy usually turn colors in the fall, and at that time people can easily see the plant and avoid it; we might say that warm colors become “warn colors.” The lucky observer who dares to get close enough can be rewarded with a small but brightly colored display that rivals anything from colder regions.

Another vine, and one that some people mistake for poison ivy, is Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), which is also called five-leaf creeper; each of its compound leaves normally has five toothed leaflets that radiate from a single point (as opposed to the line symmetry shown by poison ivy’s three leaflets). This harmless plant, which has spread across much of the eastern two-thirds of North America, not only creeps along the ground and over obstacles but is also adept at climbing up tree trunks or other structures. Whether growing horizontally or vertically, the vine is a reliable source of yellow, orange and red in the fall.

Distinctly more woody than all those vines is Berchemia scandens, known colloquially as supplejack and rattan – yes, a relative of the Asian rattan that gets turned into furniture. Found throughout the Southeast and as far west as Central Texas, the stout rattan vine, with its smooth and often dull-green or russet exterior, can coil its way around a young tree and hold it so firmly that over time the vine ends up partly embedded in the expanded trunk of the tree. Rattan also can climb up to the top of an already tall tree, where the vine’s leaves are usually hard to distinguish from those making up the denser canopy of the forest. But then comes fall, and the rattan vine’s elliptical leaves, each with a characteristic chevron of veins, turn yellow and orange and suddenly contrast with the tree trunks and still-green foliage around them.

All the species mentioned so far produce their brightest color in the fall, but one modestly sized tree, the possumhaw (Ilex decidua), puts on a display that becomes visible only at the very end of autumn. That’s when the leaves of this deciduous tree fall off, revealing, on the females of the species, thousands of bright-red “berries” (botanists call them drupes), many of which stay on their branches through March. A rare winter storm in Texas can cover the fruits in snow or encase them in ice, but because this species grows as far north as Illinois and Maryland, residents of cooler regions are more likely to see that combination of red and white than people farther south. Even without any enhancement from precipitation, the saturated red “berries” of the possumhaw enliven our otherwise barren winter woods, and they provide food for animals that have a hard time finding sustenance in the cold season. The numerous fruits can cheer people up, too, especially since they last until the tree leafs out again once spring has already returned.

Steven Schwartzman hosts the native plant photography blog at