Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fall Color in the Flint Hills


The colors of Fall here in the Flint Hills are not the bright reds, oranges and yellows characteristic of the NorthEast forests, but rather a more even russet that coats the landscape in late Autumn.  Native and invasive tree species that are common here either don't change color much before they drop their leafy coats onto the ground, or else they turn some form of brownish-yellow that just fades away.  It's just the prairie grasses, particularly the blue-stems, that provide the red to brighten the browns.  The russet color is especially pronounced on misty or rainy mornings, so it's those Fall and early Winter days that I look forward to, knowing the landscape will come alive with reds. 

We often borrow the red shades by choice, though.  Certainly, in town, the varieties of chosen trees improve the variability of fall color for the eye.  And there are sometimes some happy accidents that Man can't improve on.  In the case of the tree on the left, an otherwise unassuming Siberian Elm on my drive to work, the brilliant red is provided by a wild Virginia Creeper that is entirely invisible the rest of the year, yet it proclaims its existence in the colding months before it fades away again.
Another form of a darker wine-red that dots the prairies in some areas is the Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) pictured to the right above.  Smooth Sumac can be almost an invasive weed if left unchecked, or more exactly unburned, in some areas of the prairie, but in the Fall I welcome the clumps that often outline the peaks of the ridges.  Backlit by the morning sun, the leaves of Smooth Sumac glow a very bright red, and the seeds make up for the dull unnoticed spring flowers of the sumac by providing a red "drupe" of frosted berries above the plant.  Smooth sumac, a member of the cashew family, is said to be eaten by deer (although I've never seen deer nibble on it at all) and was used by Native Americans to treat sunburn, sore throats and mouths, and to make red and black dyes.  Since I haven't tried any of these uses, I can only attest to its welcome addition to the Fall colors of the Flint Hills.


All in all, I can't complain that we can't match New England for fall tourist color.  The colors of the Flint Hills are what God gave to this unforgiving soil and they are quite sufficient to propel me into winter.

1 comment:

  1. I've sucked on smooth sumac berries while walking; they have a very pleasant, sweet tart sort of flavor. The flowers attract a large number and variety of pollinators, too, although humans don't tend to notice them because they are greenish-white in color.

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