Martha’s Vineyard provides a natural palette of fall color

The trees may be more subdued than those observed in northern New England, but the Island has much to offer leaf viewers.

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Quansoo Farm, showing oaks and huckleberries. — Photo by Adam Moore

Although Martha’s Vineyard may not make Yankee Magazine’s list of the top fall foliage destinations in New England, Island visitors and residents will find plenty of attractive foliage to view if they know where to go, and the leaves are turning right now.

Leaves turn color in the fall because of lower levels of sunlight and shorter days, Tim Boland, executive director of the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury, said.

“The lower light level signals to the plant that frost is about to come,” Mr. Boland said. “There’s a shift in the physiology of the tree. The tree sends hormones to the petiole, the connection between the leaf and the branch, and the tree forms a sealant. Once that seals, the chlorophyll is no longer being produced and starts to break down.”

Essential to photosynthesis, chlorophyll also gives leaves their green color.

“Once the chlorophyll breaks down, the subpigments — the carotenoids, the xanthophylls, and the anthocyanins — start to show,” Mr. Boland said.

Mr. Boland explained that the carotenoids are responsible for orange colors, the xanthophylls for yellow, and the anthocyanins for red.

David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest and a seasonal West Tisbury resident, explained the process of color change even further.

“We have had a lot of research done on the pigments that cause the different colors,” Mr. Foster said. “Some of the deep reds are even produced at this time of year.” Mr. Foster explained that while the orange and yellow pigments are present in the leaf all along, and are just revealed in the fall, the red anthocyanins are actually made in the fall.

The Harvard Forest website explains, in layman’s terms, the science related to the change of color in the fall. For example, this summer’s drought may cause some leaves to turn early and drop early. On the other hand, autumn days that are crisp and sunny enhance the production of anthocyanins, making for deeper shades of red.

The sugar maple is the most spectacular tree to view in fall in New England. Yet sugar maples are not native to the Island, and planted specimens here are scarce. Where on the Island, then, should one go, and what trees should one look for?

“The places where you get real color are the wet areas, where you have red maples and beetlebungs, and the heathlands, where you have blueberries and huckleberries,” Mr. Foster said. “You can differentiate all the different species.”

The deep scarlet hue of beetlebung makes this tree an Island autumn favorite. Known on Martha’s Vineyard as “beetlebung,” the other common names of this tree are tupelo and black gum, and its scientific name is Nyssa sylvatica. To see beetlebungs ablaze in scarlet, try Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation’s Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary in West Tisbury.

“My favorite spot is the neck of Cedar Tree Neck,” Kristen Fauteux, director of stewardship for Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, said. “You can see it really well from the beach path and from the bench near the parking lot.”

Julie Russell, Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank ecologist, recommends viewing beetlebungs at Priester’s Pond Preserve, at the junction of North Road and State Road in West Tisbury.

“It’s a good drive-by,” Ms. Russell said. She noted that the beetlebung leaves here “get red and fall within days.”

Red maples are common on Martha’s Vineyard, especially in wet areas, and these trees turn various shades of red, orange and yellow, sometimes with all of these colors occurring on one leaf. Middle Road offers good places to see red maples. For a good autumn walk, try the trails linking Brookside Farm to Brookside Ridge Preserve in Chilmark.

The Land Bank’s Sweetened Water Preserve on the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road in Edgartown offers attractive fall foliage, easy to view from a passing car. Those who stop for a closer look will be rewarded by the sight of the Decodon verticillatus, also known as water willow.

“Decodon turns a dark, cranberry red,” Ms. Russell said.

Sumac also turns a deep red, and it is striking enough to turn the heads of motorists passing by Nat’s Farm on Old County Road in West Tisbury.

Sassafras, found nearly everywhere across the Island, turns a pretty speckled yellow and orange in the fall.

Hickories also turn yellow. Hickories can be spotted in the “picnic woods” along the loop trail at Quansoo Farm in Chilmark and on Chappaquiddick at Hickory Cove and at the Hal & Olive Tilghman Preserve.

To enjoy yellow color and to conjure thoughts of Halloween, one might seek witch hazel at the Land Bank’s Gay Head Moraine property.

“Witch hazel flowers bloom in the fall. They’re yellow,” Ms. Russell said. “If you follow the old road, they arch right over the path.”

The most distinctive fall foliage of the Island, however, may lie on the great outwash plains of the south shore. The vast stretching plains of Quansoo Farm, of Long Point Reservation, and of Sepiessa Point Reservation in West Tisbury, all offer enticing public trails with expansive views, stretching toward the sea.

In the stiff breezes of October these landscapes move. Masses of ruddy little bluestem and golden switchgrass wave in the winds. Beside them, thickets of huckleberries and blueberries bear bright red leaves, and nearby viburnums sport sprays of dark blue berries, and the bayberries are covered in gray wax. The nearby oak trees, sculpted by the wind, have leaves that turn, orange, rust, or scarlet. Add to these views the sound of the surf, and all thoughts of the foliage in Vermont will scatter like a pile of leaves on a windy day.

For more information on fall foliage and places to visit, please consult the following websites: harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu/autumn-foliage-color, mvlandbank.com, pollyhillarboretum.org, sheriffsmeadow.org, thetrustees.org.


Adam Moore is executive director of the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation.