The Leaf List
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
I have an affinity for lists and rankings. Any article with a top 10 list or the newest football rankings article is pure clickbait for me. Now that peak of fall has past and all the candidates have shown their best colors, the time has come to rank the top ten fall foliage at Wintergreen. This Nine Minute Naturalist will provide my rankings for the best fall colors displayed in the fall of 2022.
Before I jump right into the list, I did operate on a series of parameters. First, no non-native species are allowed on the list. Species like burning bush or Bradford pear are stunning but not eligible. Another caveat is that the list is not limited to trees. Any plant that changes color and loses its leaf can be ranked. Now onto to number ten:
10. White Oak – Few lists of stunning foliage will include oaks and rightfully so. Oaks tend to go from green to brown and offer little to attract the eye. White oak tends to start changing colors at the lower branches and work its way to the top of the tree. The color palate will be a red/green combo that is quite underrated.
9. Hickory – I am ranking hickory as a group since almost every hickory has the exact same color. Pignut, shagbark, bitternut, and all the rest go from green to bright yellow and cause the entire forest to change color. At times this fall, Wintergreen Drive was almost hazardously bright yellow. The light streaming through the magnificent yellow hurt the eyes it was so brilliant.
8. Virginia Creeper – As the only non-tree or shrub on the list, Virginia creeper holds its own amongst all the festive fall colors. This quick growing vine is one of the earliest plants to change color in the fall and its bright purple or red stands out among a forest of green.
7. Black Gum – Black gum is one of the first leaves to signal that fall is coming. It changes to a vibrant red when most trees have not begun the color change process. Finding their lovely red leaves amongst a forest of green makes this tree a true standout.
6. Sugar Maple – A sugar maple offers lovely yellows and subtle oranges to the fall color palate. The ranking of sugar maple is clearly earned when you enter a sugar “bush” (a grove of sugar maple trees) and are dazzled by the vivid colors.
5. Sourwood – This hardwood, much more common further south than Wintergreen, has brilliant red to pink fall foliage that stands out amongst the fall forest. Planted along Wintergreen Drive from the gatehouse to Fortunes Ridge, sourwood demands attention with its outstanding foliage.
4. Sassafras – This tree common around every forest opening at Wintergreen earns its ranking due to the diversity of color in each leaf. A sassafras tree amid color change will feature green, yellow, orange, purple and red all on one plant. This color variety makes for a great color addition along our forest edge habitats.
3. Flowering Dogwood – Few trees can compete with the qualities flowering dogwood offers. Not only is it the state flower, this tree has some of the best fall colors in all the Blue Ridge Mountains. Dogwoods slowly blend green into oranges, reds and finally into deep purples that stand out in any forest or landscape.
2. Red Maple – Much sought after as a landscape tree purely for the one month of vibrant color, red maple is often taken for granted in a forest environment. This tree is found in the swamps of Allen Creek all the way to the top of Devils Knob, offering brilliant reds wherever it is found.
1. Sumac – The color champion for 2022 is sumac…in all its varieties. Wintergreen is lucky to be home to three variety of sumac; staghorn, shiny, and smooth. This woody plant has compound leaves that feature some of the best color variety possibly in a single leaf. This flamboyant leaf features green, yellow, orange, red and finally deep crimson as the leaves prepare to fall. This woody plant can be found throughout Wintergreen but the greatest concentration can be seen along the Appalachian Trail at Reeds Gap.