Why Are the Leaves Still on the Trees? It's December 15 and, Incredibly, Britain's Trees Are Still Covered in Foliage

Daily Mail (London), December 15, 2005 | Go to article overview

Why Are the Leaves Still on the Trees? It's December 15 and, Incredibly, Britain's Trees Are Still Covered in Foliage


Byline: JANE FRYER

DECK the halls with boughs of oak tree, Tra la la la la . . . ' Admittedly, 'oak' may not have quite the same festive ring as 'holly' and is doubtless rather more tricky to trail artfully across a mantelpiece, but oak, along with apple, birch and beech, could be competing with holly, ivy and mistletoe for this year's Christmas foliage.

With trees staying in leaf longer than ever, Britain could be poised for its first green Noel. Certainly, the bleak midwinter seems an awfully long way off.

With less than two weeks to go until Christmas, some trees - mainly oaks and apples - remain resplendent in green while our woods and forests are still a rash of autumn reds, oranges and yellows courtesy of leaves that refuse to fall.

According to environmentalists, the reason is the unusually mild autumn - temperatures in October were about 2.5C above the 30-year norm, while the hours of sunshine last month were 50 per cent above average.

'It has been the most extraordinary autumn I can remember,' says Tony Kirkham, head of Arboretums at Kew Gardens.

'Unbelievably mild and light for weeks and weeks, right up into mid-November. As a result, while some trees have lost their leaves, there are plenty more still in full bloom.

'Like every living thing, trees are programmed by nature to respond to seasonal triggers.

'Shorter days and plummeting temperatures prompt them to start their winter shut- down and shed their leaves. But with this year's balmy autumn, it just didn't happen. Many retained their leaves.' As every schoolchild knows, leaves obtain their green colour from chlorophyll - the vital pigment which they use to make nutrients out of sunlight, air and water by the process of photosynthesis.

BUT leaves also contain other pigments called anthocyanins which protect the dying leaf, like the last coat of paint on a terminally rusty car, allowing it to squeeze the few remaining calories of energy from the fading light.

According to Tony Kirkham: 'Usually, the fall in temperature is the catalyst for the tree to start slowing down and drawing the chlorophyll out of the leaves, back into the tree, exposing the carotene [another pigment] and causing the show of yellows, oranges and reds in the leaf.

'This year, when we've had the very cold weather of the past fortnight, it's almost as if the trees haven't known what to do. While ash, walnut and horse chestnuts have shed their big fleshy leaves, others, such as oaks, birches and apples, with smaller, tougher leaves, are still clinging on.

'Unless we have some really strong winds, there's every likelihood that oaks and beech will keep their leaves until the New Year.' Mr Kirkham says that the higher temperatures of autumn are also responsible for the poor 'show' of colour this year, particularly in Southern England where the weather has been warmer.

It began well with leaves turning yellow, but then the process seemed to halt in its tracks.

'For good colour and leaf fall, you need differentiating temperatures between day and night - cold nights and milder days,' he says.

'Instead, October and November were really mild and the day and night temperatures only varied by a couple of degrees.

'And when, finally, about two weeks ago - and almost a month late - we had our first frost of the year, it was so brutal and sustained that for those leaves that did turn, the process was speeded up.

'Instead of a two or threeweek process of colouring, they turned almost overnight and the more delicate trees dumped their leaves straight away, rather than over weeks. …

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