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Why New England Trees Shine So Brightly in the Fall

By Stephen Kendrick

Autumn leaves

When autumn comes around, New England’s trees never fail to put on a spectacular display as they shed their leaves. This is especially true of the trees in one of the Boston area’s most famous attractions, Mount Auburn Cemetery. Mount Auburn Cemetery is also the subject of author and Unitarian minister Stephen Kendrick’s The Lively Place: Mount Auburn, America’s First Garden Cemetery, and Its Revolutionary and Literary Residents. In the following passage from his book, Kendrick asks the president of Mount Auburn about the science behind the array of intense reds, oranges, yellows, and ochers of the leaves that draw so many visitors. The science is just as splendorous as the colors it produces.


Autumn: New England’s residing glory, what people from all over the world come to see. Maybe we are used to it, or sim­ply through familiarity do not realize our trees produce the greatest profusion of fall color in the world—but there it is.

Nowhere else in the world are concentrated such orange-tinged russets, golds, and vivid reds. Our trees do us proud. There is only a short time to see all this; “leaf-peepers” are simply seekers of something rare and ephemeral. Mount Auburn, although a small player within these thousands of miles of burning fall tints, asserts itself every year as one of the special sites in the midst of nature’s color show.

Knowing the science behind it all does not steal away the intensity. Why do New England trees shine so brightly now? Dr. David Barnett, president of Mount Auburn and a horti­culture specialist, may have many responsibilities as he runs the cemetery, but he remains an inveterate lover of all things botanical. He does not seem to mind my ignorance, since it allows him to reflect upon what he enjoys.

“The reason the colors are so intense here in New Eng­land? It’s all a natural process. The shorter day triggers the reduction of chlorophyll, which produces the green, and when this happens, the yellow pigments that have been there all along are revealed. The reds are a different matter, they are called”—and he patiently spells it out for me, aware by now that he is not dealing with a nature man—“anthocyanin pigments, which are produced by a variety of environmental conditions and are at their best in the years when there are bright sunny days and cold nights in the fall. We also have to be fortunate in terms of moisture (something New Eng­land usually gets in abundance). If it is a time of drought, the colors dim; frankly, the leaves fall before they have a chance to turn. We just happen to be in the right temperate zone, the right elevation, the right palette of the right kind of trees, particularly our maples.”

But with the end of fall comes the fall of all this splen­dor. While everyone else is gobsmacked by the blinding beauty of autumn, Dennis Collins, horticultural curator, and Paul Walker, superintendent of grounds, are seeing something else; they are scrambling against the reality of winter to finish every project that they have started. Walker supervises an augmented grounds crew to deal with the coming deluge of leaves from over five thousand trees.

In the old days, they would vacuum leaves, three thou­sand yards full, but all this has changed in the new Mount Auburn. It is still a lot of work, but the whole process is now shrewdly ecological. By late October they stop mowing the lawns and begin mulching the leaves as they start to fall. Having learned over the years the sound ecological reasons for leaving behind grass cuttings, they have concluded it makes more sense to mulch the leaves in place. The mow­ers are outfitted with mulching blades to pulverize leaves, again and again. The grounds are then ready for winter, and mulched for spring.

The grounds crew uses these cooling months to find the plants they will soon need, and then gets ready to do a great deal of planting in the spring. It is a time to think through good designs for gardens and flowerbeds, and every aspect of a spring half a year away. And they are on the lookout for the first snow that will stick, generally in late December, with the long freezing spells that signal winter is upon them.

Like the flitting monarch butterflies around Willow Pond and the Washington Tower wildflower meadow, now at its peak, birds are migrating south. The fall pilgrimage is not like the intense colorful splendor of spring’s journey, but slower, stretched out, the colorful mating plumage now molted and muted. Though more birds, accompanied by their young, are making the trip, the effect is now calmer, and birders flock to the grounds in a relaxed, almost reflec­tive way. They search the skies for sparrows, chickadees, juncos, and even rare finches, and as the last of the migrating birds depart, some fifty species remain, readying themselves for the cold to come.

Chrysanthemums bloom late, offering a last burst of color to the chilling landscape. The first sign of spring at Mount Auburn is generally the yellow bud of the witch hazel. Showing the steady, sturdy dutifulness of nature, the last blooming shrub of autumn is the witch hazel again, its last effusion a fragile yellow bloom, a farewell after the limbs of the sugar maples and their kin are shorn.


About the Author 

Stephen Kendrick is senior minister at the First Church in Boston, Unitarian Universalist. He is the author or coauthor of Holy Clues: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes, Sarah’s Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America, Douglass and Lincoln, and the novel Night Watch. Follow him Twitter at @RevSKendrick.