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December, 2007

The Color of Leaves

by Valerie

It might seem odd to people who are living in the northern half of our country that I would now feel impelled to write about leaves. After all, those folks haven't seen much in the way of outdoor greenery in a month, due to snow covering everything. But, here in central Texas, we have yet to experience our first hard freeze of the season. Our autumn stretches on for months, with the trees losing their foliage ever so gradually, one species at a time. We even have a significant percentage of plants that retain their leaves all year, so we never really stop seeing the green parts of plants; it's more like a slow tide that waxes and wanes annually but never disappears.

The leaves came to my attention recently after a particularly blustery day brought a new batch down from their treetop domiciles. As I was clearing the fallen leaves out of our largest pond, for the hundredth time this year it seemed, I noticed that a few of our ornamental pear leaves had managed to blow the distance to the pond. There were not many, but they were a mix of green, yellow and red. When I looked back at the tree, I observed that only a small portion of the leaves, most of which were still attached to their twigs, had actually changed color from green to the brilliant autumn hues. At times, this particular tree puts on quite a show and turns bright crimson in a matter of days. But this year, it is more of a patchwork quilt of colors, a few orange and gold leaves on top with a lot of still-green on the rest of the tree, and a smattering of brown scattered throughout. Even individual leaves are multicolored.

Leaves are such a common sight that I often do not think about them. The different green shades tend to blend together into a familiar and comfortable pallet that simply defines the outdoor world. I used to wonder what it would be like to suddenly wake up to find that all the greens outside had become purples instead. How long would it take for me to get used to it? Would it FEEL different? Would the clash of the purple with the blue sky eventually become as pleasant as the green was, or would the novelty last the rest of my life? It is certainly possible to become accustomed to variations in the color and quantity of the foliage around us. Life in a tropical rainforest is vastly different than that on the high plains, a desert, or the arctic tundra.

Discerning the subtle differences in the colors of leaves can become an exercise in advanced observation: there is an infinite range of "green." It can be more on the bluish side, or lean more towards the yellow, with the whole spectrum of dark to light for any given hue. Leaves are almost never one single color, but a mixture of veins and blemishes and shading. The tiny lines of brown that spread fractal-like through the surface lend their own characteristics when viewed from a distance that lets the colors blend. The texture and shape of the leaves also affects how we see their color: from shiny to matte to fuzzy; crinkled or silky; or round, toothed, or slender.

While the greens that surround us much of the time are pleasing, the excitement of the different seasons certainly enriches our environment even more. Just as I anticipate and enjoy the arrival of fall, with the gaudy shades of amber, rust, and scarlet, it is also fun to notice the first new leaves of spring, with their pale jade, bright chartreuse, and lime greens. Many young leaves are even purple or burgundy in color, an adaptation to hide their tender freshness from browsing herbivores. Only when they have acquired the toughness of age will they finally reveal their deep chlorophyll colors. Even the dead leaves of winter present a vast array of brown tones, as if the leaves are preparing to match the color of their final resting place in the soil.

Leaves may be considered by some to be just one of those zillions of details that are best left ignored, as there are more important things to occupy one's neurons. It's almost a textbook example of "not seeing the forest for the trees." However, if one can take the time to look at the details of life, it might just enrich the overall experience.

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