October 2008

Legend of the Fall

A guide to the stars of autumn foliage

It’s hard to imagine fall in the Adirondacks without a canopy of golds, oranges and reds, but for a couple thousand years after the retreat of the glac­iers, only evergreens dared creep north. Then, 10,000 years ago, cold-hardy paper birch returned, flying the yellow flag.

Four millennia later the three sisters of Adirondack hardwoods took root: yellow birch, sugar maple and American beech. The trio still dominate, and a dozen other broadleaf species mix among them in the uplands (1,200 feet and higher). Another 15 or so hardwood types overlap the outer edges of the Adirondack Park.

Even though 40 tree-generations have passed since the glaciers, equilibrium has yet to be established, according to Forests & Trees of the Adirondack High Peaks Region by Edwin H. Ketchledge. Species still compete for territory, he writes, in an ebb and flow of fire, climate, insect and fungal attacks, land use and logging.

Ketchledge’s book, first published by the Adirondack Mountain Club in 1967, is a pocket-size field guide as well as a key to understanding the landscape. Ketch, a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division’s Italy campaign, has dedicated his life to Adirondack conservation, botany and teaching. Only poets have written so fondly about trees. Today he is retired from the State Univer­­sity of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, living in the Adirondack town of Peru with his wife, Jean.

“Fall is the best time to stand on a high summit and visually scour the high country landscape,” he writes. “[The colors] will reveal to you which forest areas have a story to tell.” Fall is also the best time to pick up some luminous leaves from the trail. They too have a story to tell.

Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

Ketchledge calls yellow birch “the most typical Adirondack hardwood.” This Betula usually grows 60 to 75 feet tall and is more on scale with sugar maples than with its cousin paper birch. Enormous, 100-foot-tall, four-foot-diameter examples can be found in the Pigeon Lake Wilderness and other old-growth patches throughout the Adirondack Park.

If you are not sure a tree is yellow birch, scratch a twig and smell it: the fragrance is wintergreen.

Autumn leaves: Pale yellow, three to four inches long, one to two inches wide. Egg-shape but pointy, they resemble elm leaves.

Bark: This is what gives the tree its name: not exactly yellow but golden to bronze with curly horizontal peels on younger trees. The bark grays and gets platy as a tree ages.

Habitat: It is often found growing with hemlocks but does well in almost any forest mix. Economic uses: Strong, heavy wood makes good furniture, veneer, charcoal, firewood and pulp.

Benefits to wildlife: White-tailed deer, moose and snowshoe hares browse buds and leaves. Beavers and porcupines eat the bark. Squirrels, grouse and songbirds consume seeds. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers peck holes in the bark to feed on sap; hummingbirds and red squirrels then feed at these wells.

Threats: Heavy browsing by deer can prevent regeneration. The tree has few serious pests but is attacked by tent caterpillars and gypsy moths associated with other northern hardwoods, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Paper/White/Canoe Birch (Betula papyrifera)

“The paper birch possesses the most wonderful bark of any of our native trees,” declared Harriet L. Keeler in her 1900 book, Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them: A Popular Study of Their Habits and Their Peculiarities. The slender white trunks stand out in a crowd, and in autumn so do the yellow leaves, especially on high slopes where groves of the cold-loving trees have no competition from other hardwoods. They glow among dark-green spruce and balsam.

Autumn leaves: Pale yellow. Shapes vary from region to region; at higher elevations the base is heart-shape and the tip elongated. Two to three inches long, 1/2 to two inches broad.

Bark: White, peeling, with black markings. The bark grays as it ages.

Habitat: Paper birch quickly colonize areas cleared by fire and other disturbances, forming nearly pure stands. The pioneers are short-lived (60 to 70 years) and replaced by other species.

Economic uses: The bark was used by Native Americans for canoes, storage containers and utensils. It is applied decoratively to rustic furniture. The strong, flexible wood is used primarily for pulp and plywood but also for furniture and firewood.

Benefits to wildlife: Browse for moose, deer and snowshoe hares. Grouse and other birds eat the seeds, buds and catkins. Beavers prefer paper birch for food and dam-building. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers tap the sap.

Threats: The bronze birch borer, a native beetle, attacks and can kill stressed trees. “The bronze birch borer is a threat, but I don’t consider it a major one,” says Randall Swanson, a forestry professor at Paul Smith’s College, in the northern Adirondacks.

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

New York’s state tree is also its most abundant, and Ketchledge calls it the “queen of Adirondack hardwoods.” Sugar maples, also known as hard maples, live 300 to 400 years and grow well in competition with other trees, reaching up to 120 feet tall. Seedlings germinate abundantly in shade and wait years for the chance to shoot through a sunny break in the canopy.

Autumn leaves: The signature color of Adirondack fall is the sugar maple’s orange/red. Leaves are handlike, with three to five smoothly notched lobes, usually three to five inches long and larger than red maple’s.

Bark: Gray, darkening and furrowing over time.

Habitat: Climax forests.

Economic uses: Maple syrup. Furniture-grade timber, including decorative curly-grained wood on occasion. Firewood.

Benefits to wildlife: Browsed by deer, moose and snowshoe hares. Porcupines eat the bark. Squirrels eat the seeds.

Threats: Failure of young sugar maples to mature in the western Adirondacks is attributed to the soil-depleting effects of acid rain and an overpopulation of deer. Maples are the main target of Asian long-horned beetles, discovered in Brooklyn in 1996, though the deadly invader has not yet been found inside the park. Road salt can damage and kill sugar maples.

Red/Swamp/Soft Maple (Acer rubrum)

This tree got its many names from the color of its autumn leaves, its dominance of swamp forests and the density of its wood. Red maples are often the first trees to turn color, some branches going purple-crimson before August is done. Henry David Thor­eau observed that the species “runs its scarlet-flag on that hillside, which shows that it has finished its summer’s work before all other trees, and withdrawn from the contest…. Its virtues not its sins are as scarlet.”

Autumn leaves: Deep red, lobed like sugar maple but separated by shallow, sharp notches. Conspicuously white on the underside. Size varies widely.

Bark: Gray and smooth on young trees, becoming scaly and furrowed at six-inch diameters.

Habitat: Adaptable to many conditions and found scattered throughout the park, from swamps and bogs up to 3,000 feet on mountainsides. Height varies with setting, from stunted to 60 feet tall.

Economic uses: Poorly regarded as a timber species because of susceptibility to defect but an important source of pulpwood.

Benefits to wildlife: Browsed by deer, moose and snowshoe hares. Well-suited to cavity-nesters such as wood ducks and pileated woodpeckers. Threats: Although vulnerable to the Asian long-horned beetle, red maples appear to be one of the park’s survivors.

American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

Beech are a headache for Adirondack forestland managers. Prone to rot and afflicted by beech-bark disease, the trees are nonetheless vigorous reproducers and tolerate a variety of growing conditions. American beech normally grow 65 to 80 feet tall, but examples of this height are becoming rare. The understory, however, is full of pole-size suckers sent up from the dying trees’ roots.

Autumn leaves: Clear, golden yellow in early fall, turning pale bronze on younger trees and hanging on all winter, adding warm color to otherwise snowy landscapes. The shape is elliptical, flamelike, with a coarse-toothed edge. Three to five inches long.

Bark: Healthy trees have smooth, cool-gray trunks, once prized for their ornamental beauty. Unblemished bark is uncommon now as disease mottles and kills trees as they grow.

Habitat: Almost any well-drained site at low and middle elevations.

Economic uses: Pulp, firewood, flooring, plywood and cheap furniture. Benefits to wildlife: Deer do not eat the leaves, though they favor the small triangular beechnuts, as do grouse, bears, wild turkeys, foxes, squirrels and porcupines. Only older trees (40-plus years) produce mast.

Threats: Beech-bark disease, an attack by a scale insect and a fungus.

White Ash (Fraxinus americana)

Take a good, long look at this straight-trunked, feathery tree. Botanists are saving seeds, preparing to say good-bye. The emerald ash borer, a shiny green Asian beetle discovered in Detroit in 2002 and found near the New York/Pennsylvania line last year, has already killed 50 million ashes in the Great Lakes region. New York and other states have banned import of firewood in hopes of slowing the beetle’s advance, but in June it was found not far from the Adirondack Park in Quebec. Robert Johnson, log buyer for the Rawlings baseball bat factory in Dolgeville, on the park’s southwest border, says the company is hoping the pest can be contained but is preparing for the worst. The facility produces bats for the major leagues as well as for Dick’s Sporting Goods and Kmart. Ash is light but strong and resilient, ideal for smacking a hardball. Rawlings is testing different species in a search for a substitute. About half of major leaguers now use sugar maple, Johnson says, but it isn’t as strong and tends to shatter when it breaks, sometimes injuring fans. Yellow birch is very heavy, but he hopes there may be another native tree that tests well. If not, manufacturers might have to look to South American forests.

Autumn leaves: Brownish purple, then fading into yellow. “The gradations of autumn tints in all cases are in the order of those of sunrise, from dark to lighter hues, and never the reverse,” observed Wilson Flagg in his 1881 book, A Year Among the Trees. The leaf is compound, with five to nine (usually seven) leaflets per stalk; they are oblong, pointed and lightly toothed.

Bark: Tight interlacing ridges in a uniform gray.

Habitat: Rarely found in great numbers, white ash prefer moist soils and gentle slopes at lower elevations where there are sunny openings.

Economic uses: One of the most valuable trees in the region, the strong, shock-resistant timber is used for tool handles and furniture as well as bats. Native Americans and other early temperate-forest cultures also used the wood for tools and weapons. “Achilles fought with an ashen spear. Cupid made his arrows first of the ash,” the Keeler book stated with curious authority.

Benefits to wildlife: Wood ducks, finches, pine grosbeaks, squirrels, mice, and other birds and small mammals forage the seeds. Deer browse the leaves. Pliny the Elder thought that ash trees were repellent to snakes, which would “sooner run into the fire than pass over the pieces of ash, all of which is important if true,” Keeler wrote.

Threats: In addition to the emerald ash borer, acid rain might affect white ash. “Ash decline (also called ash dieback or ash yellows) has increased over the last 40 years and is especially prevalent in New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont,” according to the U.S. Forest Service. “Mortality rates are as high as 90 percent in some areas of New York…. Although there is no concrete evidence that acid deposition is the causal agent, it cannot be dismissed.”

Black Cherry (Prunus serotina)

The shiny black/red skin of the pea-size fruit gives this tree its name, but it grows so high in the canopy (up to 125 feet) that few people notice it. In August and September, though, the grapelike clusters of cherries draw plenty of attention from robins, waxwings and other birds, which distribute the seeds on their flight south.

Autumn leaves: Warm yellow. The shape is narrow, simple and lancelike, two to five inches long, with a serrated edge.

Bark: The darkest of Adirondack hardwoods. Old trunks are charcoal gray with small, irregular roundish plates. Young trunks are smooth, shiny red-brown with horizontal white dashes.

Habitat: Young forests; more common in warmer climates.

Economic uses: The hard, close-grained wood is the most valuable in the Adirondacks (the going price at press time was $760 per thousand board feet). It is used for fine furniture, cabinets and veneer.

Benefits to wildlife: Birds, raccoons, black bears, foxes, deer and squirrels eat the fruit. Deer can eat the leaves and twigs, but they are toxic to livestock.

Threats: Black knot, a fungal disease that causes black swellings in branches, can disfigure and sometimes kill black cherry. Periodic outbreaks of native tent caterpillars defoliate and weaken the tree.

Bigtooth Aspen (Populus grandidentata)

Bigtooth aspen is ecologically similar to quaking aspen (P. tremuloides), and some biologists do not distinguish between them. “What one does, the other does; where one occurs, the other is found, though Bigtooth generally in much lower numbers,” Ketchledge writes. In late May the air fills with aspen seeds (the smallest of all trees’), lofted on white fluff. But, in the mountains especially, aspens, sometimes called popple, also reproduce by sending up suckers, vertical shoots from horizontal roots. A single individual can spread for miles and live for centuries.

Autumn leaves: Bright yellow. A flattened petiole (stem) perpendicular to the leaf creates a quaking effect. The shape is egglike but squat, two to three inches long, one to three inches wide. The name bigtooth comes from the coarsely toothed edge; quaking aspen’s is lightly serrated.

Bark: Young trunks are smooth light- gray tinged with green. Bark becomes fissured and divided into flat gray ridges with age.

Habitat: The most widespread tree in North America, found from Alaska to Mexico, coast to coast. Aspens are not so prominent in the Adirondacks, but they had a big moment here a century ago, when they filled gaps left by fires and heavy logging. They still colonize clearings, growing quickly to heights of 60 to 80 feet but, like birches, are soon replaced by mature-forest species.

Economic uses: Little prized by forest­ers, the soft, light-colored wood is sometimes harvested for pulp, particleboard and fuel pellets.

Benefits to wildlife: Provides primary habitat and food for ruffed grouse. Twigs are browsed by moose and deer. Beavers and rabbits eat the bark and foliage. Threats: The tree is vigorous and often called “weedy,” though it is susceptible to the Asian long-horned beetle and gypsy moth.


Several Web sites pick up where field guides leave off. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health In­spection Service ( /plant_health/plant_pest_info) has up-to-date information on insects that pose a serious threat to na­tive trees, including maps of the emerald ash borer’s and Asian long-horned beetle’s advance. The Forest Service ( /feis/plants/tree) offers a tree in­dex that is so thorough it’s engrossing in surprising ways (i.e., “Unlike many plants, the leaves of sugar maple typically contain relatively high levels of calcium, magnesium and potassium when they are shed in Au­tumn”). The Ar­bor Day Foundation ( gives advice about which trees to plant where and an interactive identification key.

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