Textures of autumn

October days filled with opportunities to see red.

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And texture shot taken at Abigails. — Photo by Susan Safford

Clear days and nights result in radiational cooling, leaving behind a heavy blanket of dew the following morning if we narrowly avoid frost, or an icy sparkle outlining every leaf and petal if we don’t.

Daybreak comes later and later. Now, as plants of ordinary green drop the pretense and burst forth in many colors, everything gleams and shines in the low-angled light. Emerging out of the gloom, bright yellow native witch hazel, glowing huckleberry undergrowth, and coral Virginia creeper brighten it. The bluejay manager-bird hails the morning, and obediently, quotidian events begin to unroll. Sunlight lances through gaps in the woodland, foretelling another gorgeous October day.

A little later, part-way through the morning, the manager-bird sounds a different alarm; the woodland falls silent and poultry dashes for the rhododendrons. The hoarse scream of a light-phase redtail hawk answers from above, as she wheels off, in apparent frustration at being cheated of chicken for dinner. Why doesn’t she try for the lawn-churning voles?

After cutdowns of passé bloom and matted top growths, garden beds are left looking shorn — good time to lay low-number organic soil food (fertilizer) and mulch, and to insert some crocus bulbs. The visual textures of what is left — basal foliage, pattern, and color — come to predominate without the competition of bloom, and they still provide a satisfying picture.

The platycodon have finished flowering, but their foliage lights up, transformed into bright gold with maroon tints. Large-leaved hostas morph into tawny ochre masses when their chlorophyll drains away. Cut them down later.

Seeing red

These October days are filled with opportunities to see red, to compare redness, texture, magnificence, and to decide whether you like red in the landscape. Any flash of it in nature is a visual thrill, whether it is bird, flower, or foliage, but it is interesting to note that some of the best red foliage here comes to us in the form of plants from weedy or ruderal places.

Weeds or wreaths? Virginia creeper, huckleberry and dangleberry, and sumac, Island natives that are the objects of much eradication effort, are the ones I am referring to. They are usually planted by no human hand, and perhaps for this reason are disparaged and undervalued.

I suppose if one has paid thousands and thousands for a piece of the Vineyard, it might be an underwhelming disappointment to have it come up all sumac, huckleberry, and Virginia creeper (not to mention sumac’s relative, poison ivy). The natural plant palette of any place or location is a complex sum of its ecology and history. What is the soil makeup, profile, or disturbance? What were its prior historical origins or uses? Is the seed bank, stored deep in the soil, able to express itself through new disturbance?

Maybe it is asking just a bit too much to suggest that sumac, huckleberry, and Virginia creeper be cut some slack for living here, being native, needing no special care, planting themselves where no one asked for them to grow; but perhaps when they glow so brilliantly on these beautiful autumn days, we can appreciate them as the beautiful plants of the island sandplain and mixed hardwood forest that they are.

An early-succession helper plant, three species of sumac (Rhus) are common everywhere on the Island where there is sandy soil and some sunlight: R. copallinum (winged sumac), R. glabra (smooth sumac), and R. typhina (staghorn sumac). Their thickets assist in the establishment of larger, woodier plants such as oak species and eastern redcedar. A far less common, fourth species is white-berried poison sumac, Toxicodendron vernix, to be found occasionally in swampy places up-Island. All light up the autumn landscape where they grow, and support wildlife, with the first three also having dietary and medicinal uses.

Huckleberry appears as two species on the Vineyard, Gaylussacia baccata and G. frondosa, black huckleberry and dangleberry respectively. Together they form the currently fiery undergrowth in the mixed oak-hickory-beech Island woodland; in many areas of sandplain habitat the low groundcover is composed primarily of G. baccata. These plants form spreading mats of soil-holding roots, and appear to be able to exist mostly on air and sunshine, so nutrient-poor are the sandplain soils. However, a very decent huckleberry pie or muffin may be made with berries of either species, and for local and migrating birds, they are probably a critical food source.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is a member of the same genus as Boston ivy (P. tricuspidata), and both do this flaming, drapery-curtain thing that can cover anything, as William Cullina jokes in his entry for the plant in his “Native Trees, Shrubs, & Vines” (2002). The plant may be mistaken for poison ivy in the seedling stage, but has a five-clustered leaflet (not three), which has a more prominently toothed margin. The autumn color of Virginia creeper contrasts with its clusters of bloomy blue fruits, adding to the effect. Bird-sown seed naturally spreads the plant, as this is a prime wildlife food.

If you are determined to extirpate these plants, I probably have not changed your mind, but try to look at them with eyes that see red — not in annoyance, but in appreciation. Weeds, or wreaths?

Seeing more red

The above-mentioned plants for brilliant fall color volunteer in our landscape, but there is also a hefty list of cultivated ones that may be found at the nursery or garden center. Examples include but are not limited to low growers: ceratostigma and nandina; shrubs: certain hydrangeas, highbush blueberry, shrubby viburnums and dogwoods, crape myrtle, and several small maples. Trees that color brilliantly in autumn include amelanchier; dogwoods; Japanese, red, and sugar maples; oxydendrum, parrotia, and beetlebung.