The Pacific Northwest isn’t exactly known for its Fall colors. The Northeast part of the US is the reigning champion when it comes to colorful leaves and autumn brilliance, and that’s not likely to change. With the variety of deciduous hardwoods and reletively few evergreens, the Northeastern forests are a cacaphony of reds, oranges, yellows, and golds, and draw tourists from all over the world just for the fall color display. The Pacific Northwest in comparison is a slacker, with primarily just varying shades of yellow. There are some pockets of oaks in different areas, but they don’t seem to get the same brilliant hues as their eastern cousins, whether due to species, weather patterns, or some other factor. Then there are the firs and cedars–mile after endless, mountainous mile of shades of green. This is not a complaint, as these miles of forests are magnificent. But even the forests of mixed fir and deciduous in the lowlands don’t hold the variety of color compared to the East. It’s mostly shades of yellow. But oh, what yellow.
The most common native deciduous is the Bigleaf maple. And as its name implies, it possesses some of the biggest leaves you can imagine outside of the tropics. The majority of leaves are of normal size, 6 – 12 inches across, in the classic maple leaf shape, but occasionally you’ll see some monsters, dropping from the high canopy in the fall leaf drop, the size of a turkey platter. The trees are large for maples, and provide the bulk of the fall color (from natives) in the Puget Sound basin. My commute to work passes through an area of mature maples on the road to get to the freeway. During the summer they shade the roadway all day long. During the autumn it’s like driving through a cathedral, the leaves bright with color and seeming to glow in the waning light of sunset. The color starts out as a vivid, warm yellow early in the season, and matures into the rich orange yellow of the label on a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne, and in its magnificence (a mature Bigleaf maple is a massive tree), leaves you just as high as several glasses of the champagne.
The other trees that turn color are all in shades of yellow – from the lemon yellow of a wild cherry to the deer crossing sign-yellow of a mature cottonwood. Vine maple, another native maple, is considered a shrub rather than a tree, and provides the bright red color missing in our large trees. Coming across a patch of them in the draw of a mountain stream, or a high mountain rockfall (where their fall colors begin in late August), is a sight to behold during the autumn months.
After our glorious, extended version of summer this year, it seems the fall color has been more spectactular than usual. And now the rains have begun, and the deciduous trees are becoming devoid of leaves. The foothills still hold some color, even as the mountains beyond are becoming snow capped, and there are some non-native ornamentals in town still putting on a show (the neighbor’s Japanese maple is one that’s just reaching peak), but the big show is over. The heavy rains and wind are accelerating the leaf drop, and they swirl through the air like oversized confetti as we head into the dark months, when the evergreens rule.