Vine Maple Autumn

By Marshall, Gene | American Forests, September-October 1989 | Go to article overview

Vine Maple Autumn


Marshall, Gene, American Forests


Every autumn when the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest begin tuning up their symphony of change-when the morning air sharpens and the sky takes on a heartbreaking blue and the Canada geese sound their wild warningOctober brings a minor miracle. It is then that the vine maple, a shrubby tree hidden in the shadowy understory, bursts forth in a crescendo of color.

The first hint comes on a crisp morning in midSeptember when I stand on my deck and look toward Mount jefferson, 50 miles distant. I can smell the change in the air and hear it overhead, and I know that soon the vine maple will come into its own.

The cool weather is causing the buildup of a hormone that stops the flow of sap in the vine maples and cuts off their production of chlorophyll. The pigments previously masked will soon begin to dominate. The leaves start out as a medium green and then turn, stage by stage, from pastel green to pastel yellow, bright yellow, orange, magenta, red, and purple. Not all go through every stage, but often a single tree sports three or four distinctly different colors. It may have red, orange, gold, and green leaves, all at the same time.

Just why the vine maple produces such brilliant hues is a mystery. Big differences in fall colors exist within the same species, according to Stanley Krugman, director of timber management research for the U.S. Forest Service. A case in point is the silver maple. Unlike its western cousin, the silver maple produces virtually no fall colors. "With the silver maple, the rate of decay is so rapid that the other pigments don't have a chance to come out, " says Krugman. "But some trees just have a greater abundance of secondary pigments. Evidence exists for each of these theories. "

Every year my wife and I set aside the first two weekends of October so that we can head up into the Cascades and feed our souls with this marvelous display. The vine maple, Acer circinatum, is found mixed with conifers on the western side of the Cascade Range from British Columbia south to northern California. The tree is hardly noticeable until it blazes forth gold and red against that blue October sky. Most of the brightly colored foliage you see along the mountain roads is courtesy of the vine maple.

Vilified with the name bois du diable by the early French for its devilish habit of tripping unwary river travelers during portages, the vine maple earned no love from loggers either. Despite its splendid fall show, the lumbermen cursed it for the way its slender, weak stems often sprawl along the ground, winding over and under logs like a vine-hence its name-or a running lasso, as one naturalist described it. …

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