Wonderful foliage display of red maple (Acer rubrum) and sugar maple (Acer saccharum) in the Catskills, New York State – a mountain range, which constitutes part of the celebrated Appalachians. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Late afternoon sun, casting long shadows in a forest, where the bottom is covered in fallen leaves of beech (Fagus sylvatica), Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tundra on the Blosseville Coast, eastern Greenland, with autumn vegetation of arctic willow (Salix arctica), which has yellow leaves, bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) with reddish leaves, and alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina) with crimson leaves. Lichens and mosses are also seen. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Autumn scene from northern Iceland: Fornastaðafjall Mountain (904 m), reflected in a small lake, situated on the hill Háafjall. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Gorgeous quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) on a mountain slope near Conway Summit, Sierra Nevada, California. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Autumn scene from Nanda Devi National Park, Uttarakhand, northern India, depicting a mountain slope with scattered Himalayan silver firs (Abies spectabilis), Himalayan birches (Betula utilis), which has yellow foliage, and thickets of barberry (Berberis) with crimson foliage. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Autumn is a second spring, when every leaf is a flower.
– Albert Camus (1913-1960), French writer and philosopher
I have been treading on leaves all day until I am autumn-tired.
God knows all the color and forms of leaves I have trodden on and mired.
Perhaps I have put forth too much strength and been too fierce from fear.
I have safely trodden under foot the leaves of another year.
– Robert Frost (1874-1963), American poet, in his poem Leaf Treader, 1935
I love the fitfull gusts that shakes
The casement all the day,
And from the mossy elm tree takes
The faded leaf away,
Twirling it by the window-pane
With thousand others down the lane.
– John Clare (1793-1864), English poet, in his poem Autumn
In many parts of the world, autumn is a wonderful time, when the foliage of trees and many other plants change colours, adding a vivid, albeit short, touch to the landscape. Berries and other fruits ripen, fungi abound during wetter periods, and birds start their migration south to their wintering quarters.
East American autumn foliage
In autumn, hardwood forests of north-eastern United States are a spectacle to behold, with an outstanding foliage display, mainly from Quebec south to Virginia. Numerous trees, in particular red maple (Acer rubrum) and sugar maple (Acer saccharum), display crimson, wine-red, orange, and yellow colours, occasionally two, or even three, colours on a single leaf.
Especially gorgeous is the foliage of the red maple (Acer rubrum). This tree, also known as swamp maple, water maple, or soft maple, is one of the most abundant and widespread broad-leaved trees in eastern and central North America, distributed from Newfoundland southwards to Florida, and westwards to Manitoba, Minnesota, and eastern Texas. It is very adaptable, growing in various types of soil, from swamps to dry areas, and from sea level to about 900 m altitude.
Autumn forest with red maple and sugar maple, near Cummington, Massachusetts. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Wine-coloured red maple (left), and pinkish and yellow sugar maples, near Alton, New Hampshire. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Wine-coloured and yellow leaves on a red maple, Gorham, New Hampshire. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Brilliant crimson and yellow leaves of red maple, Adirondacks, New York State. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), of the colubrid family (Colubridae), is widely distributed in North America, divided into c. 13 subspecies. The generic name is from the Greek thamnos (‘bush’) and ophis (‘snake’), whereas the specific name is from the Latin siratalis (‘resembling a garter’), in allusion to the stripes along its body.
The eastern garter snake, ssp. sirtalis, is found from southern Ontario and Quebec southwards to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the east coast to the Mississippi River.
This eastern garter snake is creeping by a fallen leaf of red maple, Caleb Smith State Park, Long Island. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
As its name implies, the sugar maple (Acer saccharum), also called rock maple, is an important source of sugar, utilized to produce the celebrated maple syrup. This species is distributed from Nova Scotia westwards to Minnesota, south to Missouri and Tennessee, and thence north-east to New York State.
It is generally believed that the leaf of sugar maple is depicted on the Canadian national flag, but according to the website canada.ca/en.html, this depiction does not represent any particular maple species.
Forests, dominated by sugar maple, near Williamstown, Massachusetts. The crimson forest in the background (upper picture) is dominated by red maple. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Due to its gorgeous foliage display, sugar maple is often planted near houses, as in these pictures from Silver Lake, New Hampshire (top), and Great Barrington, Massachusetts. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Foliage of sugar maple, adorning a stone wall (top). Like in the red maple, leaves of sugar maple often display several colours on a single leaf (bottom). – These pictures were taken at Gorham, New Hampshire. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum), also known as moose maple, is a small tree, growing to 10 m tall. Its name stems from the striped bark of younger trees. This species ranges from Nova Scotia and northern Quebec southwards along the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia. It is also found at scattered locations westwards to Michigan and Saskatchewan, and in Ohio.
Autumn leaves of striped maple are of a warm yellow colour, here photographed at Williamsburg, Massachusetts. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A few species of oak also display brilliant autumn foliage, especially so in the scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea). This species, which mainly grows on dry, acidic soils, is found in eastern and central United States, from Maine south to Georgia, and thence westwards to Missouri and Louisiana.
Scarlet oak really lives up to its name, as seen from these leaves, Caleb Smith State Park, Long Island. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The white oak (Quercus alba) also displays colourful autumn foliage. This large oak is very common in the north-eastern states, found from Ontario and Quebec southwards through the eastern states to northern Florida, westwards to Minnesota, and thence south to Texas. Despite its name, the bark is mostly grey, only occasionally white. This tree can grow very old, some specimens having reached the ripe age of 450 years.
Autumn foliage of white oak, Delaware Water Gap, New Jersey. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The eastern burningbush (Euonymus atropurpureus) is native to eastern North America, primarily found in a huge area south of the Great Lakes, but with small, scattered populations elsewhere, from Minnesota and Ontario south to Texas and Georgia. It is also widely cultivated. Formerly, the powdered bark was used by native tribes and pioneers as a purgative.
A close relative, the European spindle-tree (Euonymus europaeus), is presented in the caption Berries and other fruits.
Flaming autumn foliage of an eastern burningbush, cultivated in Massachusetts. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) has a number of other popular names, including hazel pine, bilsted, redgum, satin-walnut, and alligator-wood. This species is native to south-eastern United States, and is also found in montane areas of southern Mexico and Central America. Leaves of sweetgum are almost star-shaped, with 5 to 7 pointed lobes, and the fruits are ball-shaped, hard, and spiky. Formerly, this species was placed in the witch-hazel family (Hamamelidaceae), but has now been transferred to a separate family, Altingiaceae.
The generic name is from the Latin liquidus (‘liquid’) and Arabic anbar, which, via the Moors, became ambar in Spanish. Amber from members of this genus was formerly used in the cosmetic industry.
A close relative, Chinese sweetgum (Liquidambar formosana), is presented in the caption Asiatic autumn foliage.
Gorgeous red autumn leaves of American sweetgum, Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sumacs (Rhus) is a genus of c. 35 species of the cashew, or sumac, family (Anacardiaceae), distributed in subtropical and temperate areas, especially around the Mediterranean, and in Asia, Australia, and North America. Many other species, which were formerly placed in Rhus, have now been transferred to the genus Searsia, others to Toxicodendron (poison ivy and poison oak, see below).
The word sumac is derived from Ancient Syriac summaq (‘red’), referring to the red fruits of the genus. They have an acrid taste and are used as a spice in the Middle East. In North America, the fruits of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) are soaked in cold water to make ‘pink lemonade’, a refreshing beverage, rich in vitamin C.
Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), also known as white sumac, upland sumac, or scarlet sumac, is very common in the eastern half of the United States, with a patchy occurrence in southern Canada, the western U.S., and in Tamaulipas, north-eastern Mexico. It produces an abundance of berries, which are eagerly sought out by birds. The seeds, which pass unharmed through their gut, are spread with the bird droppings and are thus able to colonize open areas and forest edges.
Brilliant autumn foliage of smooth sumac, Williamsburg, Massachusetts. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The only thing that poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans, formerly called Rhus radicans) has in common with the true ivy (Hedera) is its climbing habit. This plant, which belongs to the sumac family (Anacardiaceae), is very common in the eastern half of North America, from Labrador south to Texas and Florida.
As with other members of this genus, poison ivy contains the poisonous urushiol, which causes rashes and other allergic reactions in some people. In his excellent book The Green Pharmacy, American botanist and herbalist James A. Duke (1929-2017) recommends the juice of soapwort (Saponaria officinalis) as the best remedy, if you have been into contact with poison ivy or other Toxicodendron species. Smear the juice over the affected area to neutralize the poison.
A close relative, the western poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), is presented in the caption West American autumn foliage.
Autumn foliage of poison ivy, Muttontown Preserve, Long Island. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Autumn foliage of sassafras (Sassafras albidum) comes in many colours: yellow, red, pink, orange, and purple. This tree of the laurel family (Lauraceae), which grows to about 18 m tall, is widely distributed in eastern United States, from Maine south to northern Florida, and thence westwards to the Great Lakes and eastern Texas.
Ground leaves of sassafras is an ingredient in home-made root beer, and they also act as a thickener and flavouring in gumbo, a spicy herb, which was used by indigenous tribes in the southern United States, and was later adopted into Louisiana Creole cuisine. (Source: C. Nobles, 2009. Gumbo, in: S. Tucker & S. Starr, New Orleans Cuisine: Fourteen Signature Dishes and Their Histories, University Press of Mississippi)
Evening light on autumn foliage of sassafras, Delaware Water Gap, New Jersey. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
West American autumn foliage
Although eastern North America takes the prize, the western part of the continent also has a significant display of autumn colours, as is obvious from the following pictures.
In autumn, the foliage of quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) adds vivid splashes of yellow to numerous areas in western North America. This species, which is also called by many other names, including golden aspen and trembling poplar, is the most widely distributed tree in North America, found from Alaska southwards through western Canada and the United States to central Mexico, and in a broad belt across Canada and northern U.S. to Newfoundland and New England.
Quaking aspens on a mountain slope near Conway Summit, Sierra Nevada, California. The second picture from below shows the snow-white trunk of this iconic species. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
California black oak (Quercus kelloggii) is mainly a tree of northern California and western Oregon, where it grows in foothills and lower mountains. Its occurrence in southern California and Baja California is patchy, but it is common in the Sierra Nevada. Most trees live between 100 and 200 years, but some specimens are known to be almost 500 years old.
This species is adapted to fire, protected from smaller fires by its thick bark. It is killed by larger fires, but easily sprouts again from the roots. Acorns mainly sprout, when a fire has cleared an area of leaf litter. This was known by several indigenous peoples, who purposely lit fires to renew growths of this tree, whose acorns was a staple food source to them.
Leaves of California black oak are deeply cleft, 10-20 cm long. These pictures were taken near McArthur, Cascade Range, and in Kings Canyon National Park, Sierra Nevada. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
As its name implies, the bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), also called Oregon maple, has large leaves – in fact the largest leaves of any maple, often to 30 cm across, with five deeply indented lobes. Usually, this species is 15-20 m tall, but specimens up to 48 m are known. It is native to the Pacific Coast, from southernmost Alaska to southern California. Inland, it occurs in the Sierra Nevada, and in central Idaho.
Autumn foliage of bigleaf maple is yellow. This picture shows a large, moss-covered specimen, encountered at the North Umpqua River, Umpqua National Forest, Oregon. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Leaves of a bigleaf maple, illuminated by a patch of sunshine, Humboldt Redwood State Park, California. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The vine maple (Acer circinatum) is a shrub or small tree, which can sometimes reach a height of 20 m. The common name probably stems from its short, crooked trunk, with twisted, spreading limbs, which somewhat resemble those of grape vine. This species has a rather limited distribution, found along the Pacific coast from southern British Columbia southwards to northern California. It is a colonizer of avalanche areas and open forests, which have been clear-cut by loggers.
In former days, wood of this tree was utilized by native tribes to make bows, frames for fishing nets, snowshoes, and cradle frames. Other tribes boiled the bark of the root and drank this decoction to treat colds. Charcoal made from this species was mixed with water, taken against dysentery and polio.
Wine-red and red autumn foliage of vine maples, both photographed in Umpqua National Forest, Oregon. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Despite its name, the western poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), formerly Rhus diversiloba, is not even distantly related to oaks, as it belongs to the sumac family (Anacardiaceae). The name was given due to the similarity of its leaves to oak leaves. This species is very common along the Pacific Coast, from British Columbia south to Baja California.
As with other members of this genus, poison oak contains a toxic substance, urushiol, which many people are allergic to. See poison ivy, presented in the caption East American autumn foliage.
Autumn foliage of western poison oak, photographed in Umpqua National Forest, Oregon. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
California redbud (Cercis occidentalis) can be identified by its almost circular leaves. This small tree, growing to 6 m tall, is mainly found in northern California, less abundantly in southern California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Early in spring, it produces a profusion of pink or purplish flowers.
Autumn foliage of California redbud, near McArthur, Cascade Range, California. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
European autumn foliage
Autumn in Europe is a more subdued affair, as far as colours is concerned. However, a number of plants do have gorgeous autumn foliage.
Originally, the wild cherry (Prunus avium) was not growing in northern Europe, but finds in kitchen middens from the Viking Age (and not in older middens) indicate that it was introduced at this time. Today, this species is very commonly naturalized in Denmark and southern Sweden.
The delicious fruits are an ingredient in countless cakes and desserts, and much utilized to make jam and wine. A kind of liqueur is made from an extract of berries and crushed stones. The wood is very durable, utilized for many items, including furniture, violins, and pipes, and formerly also for parts of windmill machinery.
Cherry species are dealt with in detail on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry, whereas their medicinal usage is presented at Traditional medicine.
Most autumn foliage of cherry trees is a lovely yellow. These pictures show a border terrier, a pup of this species, and a kitten, surrounded by fallen leaves of a large cherry tree. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Some individuals of wild cherry display brownish autumn foliage, like this specimen in Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Dewberry (Rubus caesius) is a species of bramble with a very wide distribution, from Scandinavia southwards to the Mediterranean, and from Ireland across Europe and western Asia to Sinkiang in Central Asia. It has also become naturalized in various countries, including Canada, the United States, and Argentina. Its autumn foliage is a lovely crimson.
In Denmark, where these pictures were taken, dewberry is abundant in open forests, shrublands, and fallow fields. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The common polypody (Polypodium vulgare) is distributed in Europe and North Africa, growing mainly in cooler, shaded locations, such as forests, where it is often found at the base of trees, on rocks, and on old stone fences. Its name is derived from the Greek poly (‘many’) and pous (‘foot’), in allusion to its many equal lobes on the leaf. In former times, polypody was utilized in cooking, and in traditional medicine as a purgative and vermifuge. This species has been introduced to New Zealand, where it is often regarded as an invasive.
Autumn leaves of common polypody with sporangies, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Bog bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), of the heath family (Ericaceae), has an enormous distribution, found in temperate and arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere, besides isolated populations in montane areas, including the Pyrenees, the Alps, and the Caucasus in Europe, the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains in North America, and mountains in Mongolia, China, Korea, and Japan. Its berries resemble those of European blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), but are slightly acid.
Fantastic reddish-purple autumn foliage of bog bilberry, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A recent shower has adorned the red autumn foliage of this bog bilberry, growing on the mountain Fornastaðafjall, near Akureyri, northern Iceland, with countless ‘pearls.’ (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Beeches (Fagus) is a genus of 10 to 13 species of trees, native to temperate and subtropical areas of Europe, Asia, and North America.
The European beech (Fagus sylvatica) is largely restricted to Europe, occurring from England and the Pyrenees eastwards to Poland and Ukraine, and from southern Sweden southwards to Italy and the Balkans, with a patchy occurrence in southern Norway, central Spain, and Turkey. In the Balkans, it hybridizes with the oriental beech (Fagus orientalis), which is found in Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, the Caucasus, and the Alborz Mountains in northern Iran.
More pictures of European beech may be seen on the pages Plants: Ancient and huge trees, and Nature: Nature’s patterns.
The European beech can grow very large, up to 50 m tall, with a trunk diameter of up to 3 m. – Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Looking up the trunk of a large beech, Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cyclists in a foggy beech forest, Jægerspris, Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Young man, smoking a pipe among autumn beech leaves, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Guelder rose (Viburnum opulus) is native to parts of western Central Asia, the Caucasus, and most of Europe, excepting the northernmost and southernmost parts, and it has also been introduced to North America and elsewhere. The name Guelder rose relates to the Dutch province of Gelderland, where a popular cultivar, the snowball tree, supposedly originated.
In Ukraine, this species is a national symbol, and also an emblem for the concept of a young girl’s love and tenderness. (Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viburnum)
In herbal medicine, a decoction of the bark was given for rheumatism, arthritis, and stomach and leg cramps.
Raindrops adorn these autumn leaves and berries of Guelder rose, Zealand, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In prehistoric times, linden trees (Tilia) were sacred to many Germanic and Slavic tribes. In the Norse religion, they were dedicated to Odin’s wife Frigg, goddess of wisdom and foreknowledge. Later, lindens were worshipped as a symbol of knowledge, often planted in the centre of the village, where the elders would meet to discuss various issues.
Due to their content of essential oils, linden flowers emit a powerful fragrance, and tea made from dried flowers is a popular drink in many countries, in France called tilleul, in Italy tiglio, and in the Unites States basswood tea. The flowers supply excellent honey, and during the Middle Ages, linden trees were often planted around monasteries and castles to provide honey.
Linden trees are dealt with in detail on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry, their medicinal usage at Traditional medicine.
Common linden (Tilia × europaea) is a natural hybrid between small-leaved linden (Tilia cordata) and large-leaved linden (T. platyphyllos). This hybrid is widely cultivated, but has become naturalized at scattered locations across Europe.
Autumn foliage of linden trees is of a warm yellow colour. These pictures show linden trees and fallen leaves at Jægerspris, northern Zealand, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The common dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) is a native of Europe, distributed from England and southern Scandinavia south to Spain, southern Italy and Greece, and thence eastwards to Ukraine and the Caucasus. It is widely cultivated as an ornamental.
Raindrops hang like pearls on autumn leaves and fruits of this common dogwood, Valle Teña, Aragon, Spain. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The wych elm (Ulmus glabra), also called common elm, Scotch elm, or Scots elm, is a large tree, sometimes growing to 40 m tall. It is found in the major part of Europe, eastwards to the Ural Mountains, the Caucasus, and the Alborz (Elburz) Mountains of northern Iran. The name wych is from an Old English word, wice, meaning ‘pliable’. The specific name, glabra, means ’smooth’ in Latin, referring to the smooth branches on younger trees.
In Europe, the populations of wych elm have been drastically reduced by Dutch elm disease, caused by sac fungi, belonging to the genus Ophiostoma (formerly called Ceratocystis). These fungi are natives of Asia, where local elm species are resistant to the disease. However, this is not the case in Europe and North America, where the disease is epidemic.
The spores of these fungi are transmitted to the elms by bark beetles, belonging to the genus Scolytus, in America also the genus Hylurgopinus. In northern Europe, two species of these beetles occur, large elm bark beetle (Scolytus scolytus) and small elm bark beetle (S. laevis). These beetles live in the treetops, and if they land on an elm, which is infected with Dutch elm disease, the spores of the fungus attach to them during their feeding.
When females are about to lay eggs, they creep down to the trunk, or a larger branch, in which they gnaw into the soft layer between the bark and the wood, where they produce an egg-laying tunnel. When the eggs hatch, the larvae tunnel further into the wood, gnawing long feeding tunnels, which create beautiful patterns in the wood. When the female has laid eggs, she will seek out other elms, hereby spreading the spores of the fungus. Almost all elms, which are infected with the disease, die within one year.
The effect of elm disease on a large growth of elms is related on the page Vorsø on my mind: Expanding wilderness.
The leaves of wych elm have a very rough surface. These pictures are from Zealand, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus) is a native of Central Europe. It was introduced to Britain around 1500, and has also become naturalized in other parts of Europe, and in Australia, New Zealand, and North America. In many places, it has become invasive, easily spreading by its winged seeds, which are produced in the tens of thousands on a single large tree.
You may read more about the invasiveness of this species on the page Vorsø on my mind: Expanding wilderness.
These fallen leaves of sycamore maple display three colours, reddish, yellow, and greenish. – Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A close relative of sycamore maple is the Norway maple (Acer platanoides), which is also native to Europe, found from southern Scandinavia southwards to the Pyrenees, Italy, and the Balkans, eastwards to Ukraine, and thence south to the Caucasus and Turkey.
This species has been introduced to North America, where it has become invasive in many eastern states. For this reason, Massachusetts and New Hampshire have banned planting of it.
Fallen leaves of Norway maple (yellow), sycamore maple (green), and common ash (Fraxinus excelsior, in front), Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Some autumn leaves of Norway maple become a warm yellow. – Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Two species of birch, the downy birch (Betula pubescens) and the silver birch (B. pendula), are both widespread and common in Europe, in the Caucasus, and eastwards across Siberia to the Pacific, silver birch also in China and Japan. The name birch is of Indo-Germanic origin, in all probability rooted in Sanskrit. A Greek word of the same root, phorkos, means ’white’, referring to the white bark of birches.
The generic name Betula is derived from Celtic betu (’glue’), referring to the fact that Celts extracted a glue-like substance from birch sap. In certain areas with Gaelic-speaking peoples, including Wales and Brittany, birch is still called bezuenn or bedwen. The specific name pubescens is from the Latin pubes (’downy’), like the common name alluding to the downy twigs of this species, whereas the Latin pendula (’pendulous’) refers to the pendulous outer branches of silver birch.
In Norse religion, the birch represented Freya, the Great Mother Goddess, and among Celtic peoples the star goddess, Arianrhod, whose caer (‘throne’) was situated in the Corona Borealis (northern lights). She was invoked through the birch to assist in births and initiations.
Formerly, the soft birch wood was carved into numerous items, including furniture, cups, bowls, bobbins, cradles, and toys. The bark separates into thin strips, which peels off easily. It is tough, water proof and rot proof, making it perfect as roofing material. It was also utilized to make buckets, baskets, bottles, plates, and shoes, and for writing and drawing. Due to its content of volatile oils, rolled-up bark could be used as torches.
Autumn foliage of silver birch, Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Previously, the arctic downy birch was regarded as a subspecies, tortuosa, of the widespread downy birch (Betula pubescens). Research has shown that it evolved from hybridization between downy birch and dwarf birch (B. nana, see below), and today most authorities regard it as a variety of the former, named B. p. var. pumila.
Millions of years ago, volcanic activity in today’s northern Iceland brought fluid basaltic lava to the surface, where it formed a plateau. As the lava cooled, it contracted and fractured in a similar way to drying mud. As the lava cooled further, these cracks penetrated downwards, forming 6-sided (sometimes 4-, 5-, and 7-sided) columns. Further volcanic activity since pushed some of the columns into a horizontal position.
Some of these formations, named Hljoðaklettar, have withstood erosion by the Jökulsá á Fjöllum River. Hljoðaklettar means ‘Echo Rocks’, so named due to the peculiar acoustics of the area, which produce echoes.
Autumn foliage of arctic downy birches adds a touch of colour to the otherwise sombre Hljoðaklettar rocks. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
As its name implies, the dwarf birch (Betula nana) is a small species, rarely growing taller than 1.2 m. It has a circumpolar distribution, mainly found in the Arctic. At the southern limits of its range, such as Scotland and the Alps, it is restricted to mountains. In the latter area, it grows up to an altitude of 2,200 m. In Scotland, many populations have declined drastically in recent years, presumably due to global warming.
In Iceland, dwarf birch is very common, here photographed at Jökulsá á Fjöllum River (top), and on Fornastaðafjall Mountain, near Akureyri. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Two oak species, common oak (Quercus robur) and sessile oak (Q. petraea), are both widespread in Europe, and also found further east through Turkey to the Caucasus and northern Iran. The generic name Quercus probably stems from the name of the Lithuanian god of thunder, Perkunas. The word oak is from the Anglo-Saxon ek, in ancient Germanic aik, of uncertain origin and meaning.
Previously, in large parts of Europe, oaks were sacred trees, dedicated to the highest gods: in Ancient Greece to Zeus, in Rome to Jupiter, in Norse religion to Thor, the god of thunder, and in Celtic religion to Dagda, god of manliness, fertility, and wisdom. Celtic druids often performed their rituals in sacred oak groves, especially worshipping the mistletoes (Viscum album, see elsewhere on this page), growing on the trees.
Read more about oaks on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry, whereas pictures of old and large oaks are found at Plants: Ancient and huge trees.
Autumn forest with a large common oak, and also beech (Fagus sylvatica, left) and wych elm (Ulmus glabra, right), Jægerspris, Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Asiatic autumn foliage
As in Europe, autumn colours in Asia are generally not as brilliant as in America, although a number of species do attain very beautiful fall foliage. In many warmer areas, the ‘autumn’ colours appear in the winter months. A number of these ‘winter foliage’ species are also presented here.
The Chinese tallow-tree (Triadica sebifera, formerly Sapium sebiferum), is a small tree of the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae), which is native to eastern China, Taiwan, and Japan. The specific name sebifera means ‘wax-bearing’, referring to the tallow, which coats the seeds. Candles and soap are made from this wax, and this was the reason, why the tree was introduced into the United States in the 1700s.
In the 1900s, it was widely planted along the Gulf Coast by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in an attempt to establish a soap-making industry. Since then, it has spread beyond control and is today regarded as a serious pest in south-eastern U.S., expelling native plant species.
In the Orient, the leaves are used in traditional medicine for treating boils. The sap and leaves are reputed to be toxic, and decaying leaves from the plant are toxic to other plants, inhibiting their growth.
In winter, the leaves of Chinese tallow-tree turn various gorgeous shades of red, varying from orange to wine-red. These pictures were all taken in Taiwan, where this species is very common. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
No less than c. 38 species of barberry (Berberis) are found in the Himalaya, the majority being small shrubs, which often form dense, impenetrable thickets due to their spiny stems, and in some species along the leaf-margins. They all have pretty yellow flowers, which later turn into red, blue, or blackish berries. The wood of some species yields a yellow dye. The autumn foliage of most species is a brilliant crimson.
A picture, depicting autumn thickets of barberry, is seen at the top of this page.
Crimson winter leaves of Indian barberry (Berberis aristata), Shivapuri National Park, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Winter foliage of this small shrub, Berberis concinna, assumes a delicate reddish-purple colour. – Langtang National Park, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The magnificent plane trees, of the genus Platanus, constitute a family of their own, Platanaceae. Eight of the ten living species are indigenous to North America, one is found in Laos and Vietnam, whereas the tenth species, the oriental plane tree (Platanus orientalis), is distributed from the Balkans and Turkey south to Jordan, but may be a native as far west as Italy, and as far east as Kashmir in northern India. As it is widely cultivated, it is often difficult to decide, whether a population is indigenous or not.
The generic name Platanus is from the Greek platanos, which was the ancient name of maple trees (Acer). It refers to the maple-like leaves of the oriental plane tree. Some North American species are called sycamores, likewise referring to the leaves, which resemble those of the European sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus).
Other plane species are presented on the page Plants: Ancient and huge trees.
This oriental plane tree, growing near Shalimar Gardens, Kashmir, India, displays brilliant autumn foliage. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The native area of the beach almond (Terminalia catappa), also known as country almond, Indian almond, Talisay tree, and umbrella tree, is unknown. Today, this species is widely distributed in most tropical and some subtropical areas of the world, growing in a wide range of habitats. Three of its popular names stem from the similarity of its fruits to those of the true almond (Prunus amygdalus), but the two species are not at all related, the true almond belonging to the rose family (Rosaceae), whereas beach almond belongs to the family Combretaceae.
Gorgeous winter leaves of beach almond. The two lower pictures show upper surface and underside of a leaf, respectively. With the exception of second picture from above, which is from Myanmar, all these images are from Taiwan, where this species is widely planted as an ornamental tree. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Himalayan birch (Betula utilis) is easily identified by its reddish bark, which peels off in large flakes. This tree is extremely common at high altitudes, from Afghanistan east to China. In former times, the wood was used for buildings and as firewood, the bark as roof cover, to make paper, as incense, and in folk medicine, whereas the foliage was chopped for fodder.
Autumn foliage of Himalayan birch is bright yellow, as in most other birches. – Bagah River, Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Alternately called Photinia niitakayamensis or Stranvaesia niitakayamensis, this small tree, which grows to 4 m tall, is endemic to montane areas of Taiwan. It belongs to the rose family (Rosaceae), its fruit being a pome, as in apples.
There is much controversy among botanists as to the relationship between the genera Photinia and Stranvaesia. Some maintain that all Stranvaesia species should be moved to Photinia, whereas others claim that they are separate genera, albeit closely related.
According to efloras.org/Flora of China, Photinia includes about 60 species, found from the Indian Subcontinent eastwards to China, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, and also some species in Mexico, whereas Stranvaesia has about six species, found from the Himalaya eastwards to Southeast Asia and China.
Photinia (Stranvaesia) niitakayamensis is endemic to Taiwan, here photographed on Lulin Mountain, one of the lesser peaks in the Yu Shan massif, which constitutes the highest mountains in East Asia, reaching a height of almost 4,000 m. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Autumn leaf of a Photinia or Stranvaesia species, Wumeng Shan, Guizhou Province, China. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Meconopsis paniculata is a gorgeous species of poppy, which grows to almost 2 metres tall. It is distributed in the Himalaya, from Uttarakhand eastwards to south-eastern Tibet. This species is very common, especially on nutritious soils, such as cattle grazing grounds.
This attractive genus is presented in detail on the page Plants – Mountain plants: Himalayan flora.
In autumn, the hairy leaves of Meconopsis paniculata turn reddish. – Langtang National Park, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
German physician and botanist Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) lived in Japan 1690-92, working for the Dutch East Indian Company. During his stay, he noticed a tree with distinct bi-lobed leaves, which was often planted at palaces and temples, and along roads. When Kaempfer returned to Holland, he brought seeds of this tree with him. In 1771, it was named Ginkgo biloba by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, also known as Carl von Linné (1707-1778), after its Japanese name gin-kyo, which was used by Kaempfer. Thus, the last ’g’ must be a writing error, but due to the rules of botanical nomenclature we must accept Linnaeus’ blunder. Incidentally, gin-kyo means ‘silver apricot’, referring to the fruit, which somewhat resembles an apricot fruit.
British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) labelled ginkgo a ’living fossil’, a term he invented for species, which had survived unchanged for many millions of years. In fact, Ginkgo biloba is the sole surviving member of a group of plants, which evolved during Perm, more than 250 million years ago. It is so unique that it has its own division, Ginkgophyta, within the plant kingdom, with a single class, Ginkgoopsida, order Ginkgoales, family Ginkgoaceae, genus Ginkgo, and species biloba. Its nearest contemporary relatives are the cycads (Cycadales).
Ginkgo is very slow-growing, but can attain enormous dimensions, sometimes reaching a diameter of more than 4.5 m. The largest ginkgo in Japan, in Kita Kanegasawa, has a circumference of over 20 m. It often attains a height of more than 35 m, and an 1100-year-old specimen at the Yon Mun Temple in South Korea is 60 m tall. It is believed that ginkgo can live to an age of 2,500 years, or more.
Until the late 1900s, ginkgo was only known as cultivated, so it was quite sensational when larger populations were found on mountain slopes in eastern and south-western China. It is still debated, whether the eastern population has been planted by monks, but is seems that the south-western population is genuinely wild. (Source: Tang, C.Q. et al. 2012. Evidence for the persistence of wild Ginkgo biloba (Ginkgoaceae) populations in the Dalou Mountains, southwestern China. American Journal of Botany. 99 (8): 1408–1414)
Autumn foliage of ginkgo is a bright yellow. – Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Morrison’s maple (Acer morrisonense), which is endemic to the mountains of central Taiwan, almost matches the red maple (see East American autumn foliage), as far as flaming autumn foliage is concerned. This tree is named after Yu Shan, at 3952 m the highest mountain in the Far East. An older name of this mountain was Mount Morrison, named after Robert Morrison (1782-1834), a Scottish Protestant missionary, who worked in Macao, Guangdong, and the Malaccan Peninsula.
Autumn foliage of Morrison’s maple, photographed in October beneath Yu Shan. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Acer serrulatum, by some authorities called green maple, is another Asian maple with gorgeous autumn foliage. It is endemic to central and northern Taiwan.
Red leaf of green maple, observed along the Penglai River, Lion’s Head Mountain, northern Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Acer sterculiaceum, variously called Franchet’s maple or Himalayan maple, is distributed from Kashmir eastwards through the Himalaya and southern Tibet to China. It grows in forests and shrubberies, at altitudes between 1,800 and 3,900 m. In the Himalaya, the foliage is often lopped for fodder.
Yellow autumn foliage and fruits of Acer sterculiaceum, photographed at an altitude of 3,400 m, Yangri Peak, Helambu, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), also called palmate maple due to its strongly palmate leaves, is found from eastern Mongolia and south-eastern Siberia southwards to China, Japan, and Korea. Because of its attractive leaf shape and spectacular autumn foliage, this species is cultivated almost worldwide, in a wide variety of forms.
Autumn foliage of Japanese maple is either flaming red or yellow. These pictures were taken on Long Island, United States, where this species is commonly cultivated. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The commonest among four strawberry species, which are found in the Himalaya, is Fragaria nubicola, aptly named Himalayan strawberry. This species is distributed from Pakistan eastwards to Myanmar and southern Tibet, growing in shrubberies and on open slopes at altitudes between 1,600 and 4,000 m. Its fruit is edible, but not very tasty. In Nepal, juice of the plant is taken to curb profuse menstruation, and the unripe fruit is chewed for blemishes on the tongue.
Autumn foliage of Himalayan strawberry, near Keylong, Lahaul, Himachal Pradesh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Chinese pistachio tree (Pistacia chinensis), of the sumac, or cashew, family (Anacardiaceae), is a native of central and western China. Due to its hardiness, and the attractive autumn foliage, it is widely cultivated in temperate and subtropical areas around the world. In warmer areas, it sheds the leaves in mid-winter.
Winter foliage of Chinese pistachio tree. This species is very commonly planted along streets in Taiwanese cities, here in Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Himalayan poplar (Populus ciliata) is a large tree, growing to 20 m tall, with a thick, fissured bark on older trunks. The leaves are ovate to heart-shaped, long-pointed, finely toothed, to 25 cm long and 15 cm broad, with a very long stalk, to 13 cm. This species grows in forests, along streams, and in open areas between 1,500 and 3,600 m altitude, from Pakistan eastwards through southern Tibet to the Yunnan Province in China. It is widely cultivated in Tibetan areas, where its wood is used for construction, the branches to make roofs, and the foliage for fodder. A paste of the bark is applied to muscular swellings.
Autumn foliage of Himalayan poplar, near Hemis Gompa, Ladakh, India. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Chinese sweetgum (Liquidambar formosana) is a large tree, growing to 40 m tall. It is easily identified by its three-lobed leaves, almost without teeth, unlike the usually five-lobed leaves of most Asian maple trees (see above), which are strongly toothed.
Chinese sweetgum is mainly found in warmer temperate climates, growing in forests as well as in open areas. It is native to central and southern China, Taiwan, and Indochina. It is often used in traditional medicine, the bark for skin diseases, the resin for boils, toothache and tuberculosis, and the fruits for a number of ailments, including arthritis, lumbago, and skin diseases. It seems that leaves and roots can inhibit growth of cancer.
The three pictures below are all from Taiwan, where this species is very common.
A close relative, American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), is presented in the caption East American autumn foliage.
Winter foliage of Chinese sweetgum, Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Winter foliage and the globular, prickly fruits, Hu-tou Shan (‘Tiger Head Hill’), Tungxiao. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Close-up of the angular, three-lobed leaves, Dasyueshan National Forest. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sikkim spurge (Euphorbia sikkimensis) is very common in the Himalaya, from Nepal eastwards to south-western China, growing in meadows, shrubberies, and open areas between 2,400 and 4,500 m altitude. In Nepal, its root is used medicinally.
In late autumn, some Sikkim spurges get bright red leaves. This one was photographed in Langtang National Park, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) is a small tree of the fig family (Moraceae), native to East and South Asia and possibly to some Pacific islands. It thrives in a wide range of habitats and climates, readily growing in disturbed areas. It is dioecious, spreading rapidly, when male and female plants grow together and seeds are produced. Birds and other animals eat the fruits and thus help dispersing the species.
Paper mulberry can also form dense stands via its spreading root system, and it is regarded as highly invasive in a number of countries, including Pakistan, Argentina, Ghana, and Uganda.
Paper mulberry is very common in Taiwan, where this picture was taken. Occasionally, its foliage turns bright yellow in the winter. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Begonia picta can be identified by its hairy, irregularly double-toothed leaves, which are often blotched with purple. This plant is very common in the Himalaya, growing on moist rocks and banks, and in shady forest margins at altitudes between 600 and 2,900 m, from Pakistan eastwards to south-eastern Tibet.
Leaf-stalk and stems of this species are edible when pickled, and it is also widely used in local medicine. Juice of the plant is taken for headache, and juice of the root is used for inflamed eyes and peptic ulcer. The juice is also squeezed into vegetable dyes to make them colourfast.
Autumn foliage and fruits of Begonia picta, Upper Marsyangdi Valley, Annapurna, central Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Golden-rain tree (Koelreuteria elegans), also called flamegold, is a smallish tree of the soapberry family (Sapindaceae), to 17 m tall. It was named for its gorgeous inflorescences of countless small, yellow flowers, which, at a distance, may resemble ‘golden rain’. Pictures, depicting these flowers, are shown on the page In praise of the colour yellow.
Golden-rain tree is endemic to Taiwan, but is widely planted elsewhere in the tropics and subtropics as a city tree. It has escaped in several places, and is regarded as an invasive in eastern Australia and Hawaii.
In autumn, this tree is also attractive, when it displays an abundance of reddish, purplish, or yellowish fruits (see caption Other types of fruits further down on this page), and in winter, its foliage turns bright yellow.
Winter foliage of golden-rain tree, Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia) are a genus of c. 50 species of trees and shrubs of the loosestrife family (Lythraceae), which are native to the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, northern Australia, and some islands in the Pacific Ocean. Due to their beautiful flowers, many species are cultivated in numerous warmer areas.
This genus was named by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, also known as Carl von Linné (1707-1778), in honour of a Swedish merchant, Magnus von Lagerström (1696-1759), who was director of the Swedish East India Company. Lagerström was a keen naturalist, and despite never visiting Asia, he was able to procure many specimens from India and China, which he presented to Linnaeus. (Source: E. Bretschneider 1898. History of European Botanical Discoveries in China)
Not only the flowers of crepe myrtles are gorgeous. These pretty winter leaves of an unidentified species were photographed in a city park in Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Autumn is also the time, when most plants are fruiting, and many species of trees and shrubs display gorgeously coloured fruits. This is berry- and nut-collecting time.
Berries and berry-like fruits
European raspberry (Rubus idaeus) has a very wide distribution, found in all countries of Europe, Turkey, and eastwards across Siberia to Kamchatka, Korea, and Japan. The closely related American red raspberry, variously treated as a separate species, named Rubus strigosus, or as a variety of European raspberry, called R. idaeus var. strigosus, is widespread in North America.
European raspberry prefers to grow in open areas, where it can form large stands, an example of which may be studied at Vorsø on my mind: Expanding wilderness. It may also grow in forests, but does not thrive as well there. In warmer countries, it mainly grows in higher mountains.
The specific name idaeus refers to its occurrence on Mount Ida, north-western Turkey, where Ancient Greeks were familiar with it. (Source: A. Huxley (ed.) 1992. New RHS Dictionary of Gardening. Macmillan)
This picture shows red raspberries, and a rarer yellow form, picked in nature reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Idesia polycarpa is a tree of the willow family (Salicaceae), found in montane areas of China, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. In Taiwan, between December and February, this tree displays an abundance of red berries, which draw birds like a magnet, including vivid niltava (Niltava vivida), Taiwan barbet (Psilopogon nuchalis), and Taiwan thrush (Turdus niveiceps), which was formerly regarded as a subspecies of the widely distributed island thrush (T. poliocephalus).
Idesia polycarpa, Dasyueshan National Forest, central Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Manzanitas (Arctostaphylos) are a group of evergreen shrubs or small trees of the heath family (Ericaceae), occurring from southern British Columbia south to Texas and Mexico. They are characterized by smooth orange or reddish bark and stiff, twisting branches. The word manzanita is Spanish, diminutive of manzana (‘apple’), referring to the fruits. Several species occur in the Sierras, often difficult to identify.
Fruiting common manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita), Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, Oregon, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), a relative of manzanitas, has a circumpolar distribution, mainly found in arctic and northern temperate areas, confined to mountains near the southern limits of its occurrence. Incidentally, the Greek generic name Arctostaphylos, as well as the Latin specific name uva-ursi, mean ‘bear-grape’, which of course refers to the bright red berries. Traditionally, these berries have been utilized as folk medicine. Certain American tribes used the leaves as an antiseptic in urinary tract problems.
The crimson autumn foliage of a close relative, alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina), is seen at the beginning of this page.
This fruiting bearberry, growing among moss, was also encountered in Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The wild cherry (Prunus avium) is presented elsewhere on this page, see: European autumn foliage.
Fruits on a wild cherry tree, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cherry plum (Prunus cerasifera), also known as myrobalan plum, is a close relative of the cherry. This small tree, sometimes reaching a height of 12 m, is a native of south-eastern Europe and western Asia. Due to its edible fruits, which taste somewhat like plums, it was introduced to most parts of Europe and North America at an early stage, and has become widely naturalized there.
Cherry plum trees often produce an abundance of fruits. If they are not picked by people, they remain on the tree, until they are over-ripe and fall to the ground. Wild birds are not at all able to eat all these berries, which often lie almost in layers on the ground beneath the tree. Rotting cherry plums are much praised by butterflies and wasps.
The three pictures below are all from Jutland, Denmark.
Red berries of cherry plum. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
An abundance of fallen yellow cherry plums. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This picture shows colour spectrum and size disparity in varieties of cherry plum. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Inflorescences of the genus Arum (family Araceae) are highly distinctive, having a large blade, called a spathe. This blade encircles the central club-shaped spadix, on which numerous tiny flowers are clustered, male flowers above, females below. The fruit is a cluster of bright red berries, remaining on the spadix after the spathe has withered.
Spotted arum (Arum maculatum) is found in the major part of Europe, and in Turkey, eastwards to the Caucasus. It has an abundance of other common names, including snakes-head, adder’s root, devils and angels, cows and bulls, cuckoo-pint, soldiers’ diddies, priest’s pintle, and Adam and Eve. Most of these names refer to the likeness of the flowering plant to male and female genitalia, symbolizing copulation. The name cuckoo-pint goes back to British herbalist Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654), pint being short for pintle, meaning ‘penis’, referring to the shape of the spadix.
Fruiting spotted arum, Suserup Forest, Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Honeysuckles (Lonicera) are a genus of c. 180 species of shrubs or climbers of the family Caprifoliaceae, native to the Northern Hemisphere. The generic name was given in honour of German botanist Adam Lonicer (1528-1586), whereas the name honeysuckle stems from the sweet nectar in the flowers of this genus. Some species are indeed fragrant, and several are cultivated as ornamentals.
One cultivated species, Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), often escapes and has become invasive in many places, see page Nature: Invasive species.
Hairy honeysuckle (Lonicera hispidula), also called pink honeysuckle or California honeysuckle, is mainly distributed along the Pacific Coast of North America, from British Columbia south to southern California, but may also be found inland along the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada. This liana has distinctive leaves, growing in pairs up the stem, the uppermost pairs fused at the base to form ‘umbrellas’, which surround the stem. In former days, the indigenous Pomo tribe made pipes from the hollow and sturdy stems.
Hairy honeysuckle is often cultivated as an ornamental due to the beautiful pink flowers, which attract hummingbirds, whereas other birds eat the bright red berries.
Berries of hairy honeysuckle, hanging down from the fused upper leaves, Andrew Molera State Park, California. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sea-buckthorn (Hippophaë) is a small genus of 7 spiny shrubs in the oleaster family (Elaeagnaceae), distributed from western Europe eastwards to the Far East.
Common sea-buckthorn (Hippophaë rhamnoides) is found from Ireland and southern Scandinavia southwards to the Mediterranean, eastwards through Russia to Sinkiang and Mongolia, and thence south to Pakistan and Ladakh. Its berries are yellow, orange, or red, in dense clusters along branches. They are edible, a rich source of vitamins C, A, B, E, and K, and also of carotenoids. Lately, research has shown that they may have anti-ageing and memory-restoring properties.
Fruiting sea-buckthorn, Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) is also known by many other names, including lingonberry, which is from the Swedish name of this species, lingon, derived from the Old Norse lyngr (‘heather’). Cowberry is widely distributed in temperate and arctic areas of the entire Northern Hemisphere. Everywhere, it has traditionally been utilized to make jam and jelly, and medicinally it has been used as an astringent and diuretic, to control bleeding, and to treat various other diseases, including diabetes, rheumatism, and genital disorders. Among native American tribes, it was eaten to treat colds, cough, and sore throat. Others used the bright red berries as necklaces.
Bright red fruits of cowberry, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Common barberry (Berberis vulgaris) is native to central and western Asia, but has become naturalized in most of Europe and in the United States. Formerly, the berries were an important source of vitamin C, and jam was made from them. The bark yields a yellow dye. Today, barberry is cultivated as an ornamental.
In Ancient Egypt, the bark was used against infections – a usage which is still employed today. The plant was brought to Europe by the Moors, and during the Middle Ages it was used as a tonic, an antiseptic, and a laxative. Berries are astringent, and a drink, made from crushed fruits, is taken for sore throat. Among American natives, a decoction of the root was drunk in case of cough or stomach trouble, and a decoction of the bark was used to bathe wounds.
This species is an alternative host for stem rust (Puccinia graminis), which affects crops like wheat and barley, in humid and warm summers often causing huge losses. In the early twentieth century, the United States government carried out an eradication campaign, which largely eliminated common barberry, and by the early 1980s, stem rust was not a big problem. In 1999, however, a more potent type of stem rust was discovered in Africa, so planting of barberry, which is a popular ornamental, is discouraged in the U.S.
Where it gets plenty of sunshine, common barberry produces an abundance of berries. – High Point State Park, New Jersey, United States. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The dog rose (Rosa canina) is native to Europe, north-western Africa, and western Asia, and has also been introduced elsewhere. In New Zealand, it is regarded as an invasive species in certain montane areas.
According to The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2005), the specific Latin name canina (and with it also the common name) is derived from the Greek kunorodon, from kuon (‘dog’) and odon (‘tooth’), referring to an old belief that the root of dog rose was regarded as a cure, in case you were bitten by a mad dog.
The three pictures below are all from nature reserve Vorsø, Denmark, where dog rose is abundant.
Dog rose thrives in open areas, often producing a profusion of fruits, called hips. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hips of dog rose are very hardy and may persist on the bush far into the winter. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sweet briar (Rosa rubiginosa), also called sweet brier or eglantine, is a small shrub, at first sight quite similar to dog rose, but it may be told from that species by the apple-like fragrance of the leaves, the straight thorns, and glandular hairs on the fruit stalk.
This species is native to Europe and western Asia, but has been widely introduced elsewhere. In New Zealand, South Africa, and parts of Australia, it is regarded as an invasive. It is cultivated in several countries, in Tunisia to produce fragrant water, in Spain, Chile, and Argentina to make marmalade and as an additive to cosmetics.
Tea made from the hips of sweet briar is rich in vitamin C and other nutrients. During World War II, a common British expression was: “We are getting by on our hips and hops” – the hips to make tea, the hops to make beer. (Source: C. Daley 2002. Skyline to Shoreline. Xlibris)
In Old English, briar, or brier, is a thorny shrub, and sweet refers to the fragrant leaves. The name eglantine stems from eglentyn, a corruption of Old French aiglantin, which is the adjective form of aiglent, the French name of sweet briar, which is again borrowed from the Latin aculentus, of acus (‘needle’), of course referring to the thorns.
Hips of sweet briar, showing the numerous glandular hairs on the fruit stalks. – Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sloe (Prunus spinosa), also called blackthorn, is a near relative of cherry and cherry-plum (see elsewhere on this page). This shrub, occasionally growing to 5 m high, is native to all of Europe, excepting the northernmost parts, eastwards to Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Alborz Mountains in northern Iran, and also in north-western Africa. It has become naturalized elsewhere, including New Zealand and eastern North America.
Due to its numerous nasty spines, this species was formerly utilized as cattle-proof hedges. The small bluish-black fruit is very astringent, but after freezing it can be made into jam, jelly, and chutney. In certain areas of Britain, they are added to gin, and in Navarra, northern Spain, a popular liqueur, pacharán, is made with sloe.
The specific name spinosa is from the Latin spina (‘thorn’) and osus (‘full of’), whereas the popular name blackthorn refers to the very dark bark of this shrub, and, of course, to the thorns. The word sloe is from Old English slah, stemming from Ancient Germanic slaihwo (any type of plum).
Elsewhere on this website, you may read about the succession of wild growths of sloe, see Vorsø on my mind: Expanding wilderness.
Sloe fruits with a newly transformed common tree frog (Hyla arborea), Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Solanum is one of the largest plant genera in the world, counting more than 1,300 species, among these a number of very important food species, including potato (S. tuberosum), tomato (S. lycopersicum), tomato tree (S. betaceum), and eggplant (S. melongena). Two species are native to northern Europe, bittersweet nightshade (S. dulcamara), which has red berries, and black nightshade (S. nigrum), which has black berries.
Bittersweet nightshade is a climber, which is very common in most of Europe, and in a belt across the central parts of Asia, east to Japan. It is also commonly naturalized in North America, where it is considered an invasive weed. It has inviting red berries, which, however, are poisonous to people.
Bittersweet nightshade has inviting red berries, which, however, are poisonous to people. This picture was taken in nature reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Two species of hawthorn are found in Britain, the common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) and the midland hawthorn (C. laevigata). The generic name Crataegus is from the Greek kratos, meaning ‘hardness’ (of the wood). The obsolete specific name of Midland hawthorn, oxyacantha, is from the Greek oxus (‘sharp’), and akantha (‘thorn’).
The prefix haw- is an old word for ‘enclosure’ or ‘hedge’, and hawthorn was formerly widely used as a hedge plant. The name whitethorn arose from the whiteness of the bark, whereas the name mayflower refers to the main blooming time of these plants. Incidentally, the first ship to bring English settlers to North America, in 1620, was named Mayflower.
Formerly, it was widely believed that hawthorn flowers bore the smell of the Great Plague of London (1665-1666), and witches were said to hide among its foliage. Others regarded the hawthorn as sacred, probably from a belief that it furnished the Crown of Thorns that Jesus was wearing at the Crucifixion.
In the old days, a liqueur was made from hawthorn berries with brandy. Small tools and other items were carved from the hard wood, which also makes excellent fuel.
The medicinal usage of hawthorn is dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
Fruiting common hawthorn, nature reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Autumn is also the time, when you collect delicious nuts or other hard-shelled fruits, in Europe and Asia mainly hazelnuts (Corylus avellana), walnuts (Juglans regia), sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa), and pistachio nuts (Pistacia vera), in America mainly American hazelnuts (Corylus americana), beaked hazelnuts (Corylus cornuta), and various species of hickory, in particular pecan nuts (Carya illinoensis).
European hazel (Corylus avellana) is found in the major part of Europe, eastwards to the Ural Mountains, Caucasus, and the Alborz Mountains of northern Iran. Usually, this species is a large shrub to about 10 m tall, sometimes to 15 m. It prefers sunny places, and specimens in forests are often low and stunted. The oval nut, to 2 cm long, is partly covered by a leafy involucre, called the husk.
The scientific name avellana was given by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, also known as Carl von Linné (1707-1778), who took this name from De historia stirpium commentarii insignes, published by German physician and botanist Leonhard Fuchs (1501-1566) in 1542, in which it was described as Avellana nux sylvestris (‘forest nut of Avella’, a town in southern Italy). In turn, that appellation was taken from Naturalis Historia, by Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.).
Read about the succession of wild growths of hazel on the page Vorsø on my mind: Expanding wilderness.
Harvested wild hazelnuts, nature reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Although edible, kernels of the mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa) are rarely eaten by people, as they are very small. However, they are a highly popular food item for wildlife, in particular squirrels, mice, bears, foxes, rabbits, deer, woodpeckers, and wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).
Otherwise, this species is much utilized, the wood for a large number of items, including timber, charcoal, tool handles, poles, shafts, well pumps, furniture, and pallets. The sawdust and chips are used for smoking meat products.
Mockernut hickory is the most abundant of all hickories, distributed in the south-eastern United States, from Iowa eastwards to Vermont, southwards to eastern Texas and northern Florida. The specific name is from the Latin tomentum, meaning ‘covered with short hairs’, referring to the densely haired underside of the leaves. The name mockernut refers to the large fruits, which, however, have very small kernels.
Fallen nuts of mockernut hickory, Indian Springs State Park, Georgia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Acorns are fruits of oaks and other members of the beech family (Fagaceae), of the genera Quercus, Cyclobalanopsis, Lithocarpus, and Notholithocarpus. These fruits contain a single seed, enclosed in a hard shell that is partly enclosed in a cup-shaped structure, called the cupule, which can be smooth, scaly, or hairy.
Acorns of two European species, the common oak (Quercus robur) and the sessile oak (Q. petraea), are shown on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry.
The evergreen canyon live oak (Quercus chrysolepis) is common from southwestern Oregon south through California to northern Baja California, with scattered populations in Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Chihuahua, Mexico. It is the most widely distributed oak in California.
The leathery leaves of this species are entire or toothed, glossy green above, young leaves covered in yellowish down beneath, often turning grey and almost hairless the second year. The acorns vary quite a lot, but are mostly ovoid, with a shallow, turban-like, scaly cup, densely covered in yellowish hairs, which have given rise to the specific name, from the Greek krysos (‘gold’) and lepis (‘scale’). After leaching of the tannins, the acorns were a staple food of many indigenous tribes. They have also been used as a coffee substitute.
Fallen acorns of canyon live oak, Yosemite National Park, California. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Garry oak (Quercus garryana), also called Oregon white oak, has a wide distribution, found from southern British Columbia south to southern California, growing from sea level to c. 1,800 m altitude. In the Sierra Nevada, eastern California, a local variety, var. semota, is a shrub, growing to 5 m tall. This species was named in honour of Nicholas Garry (1782-1856), who was deputy governor of the Hudson Bay Company 1822-35.
Acorns of garry oak are small and rounded. – Sequoia National Forest, near Lake Isabella, California. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Previously, the American tanoak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus) was placed in the genus Lithocarpus, together with the Asian tropical stone oaks. However, recent genetic studies have shown that it is more closely related to oaks (Quercus), and its likeness to the Asian stone oaks is an example of convergent evolution.
American tanoak is mainly found along the Pacific Coast in Oregon and California, with scattered occurrence inland in the Sierra Nevada. It is a large tree, up to 40 m high, with a trunk diameter up to 1.9 m.
Fruits of American tanoak, Redwood National Park, California. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Acorns are an important food item for numerous animals, among these the acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus), which is a common breeding bird from California south through Mexico and Central America to northern Columbia. This species has an interesting habit of storing acorns as a winter supply in small holes, which it chisels into the bark of living or dead trees.
Pictures, depicting the acorn woodpecker are shown on the pages Nature: Nature’s patterns, and Decay.
This dead trunk of a blue oak (Quercus douglasii) in Cache Creek Wilderness Area, California, functions as a cache of acorns, placed here by an acorn woodpecker. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Other types of fruits
The European spindle-tree (Euonymus europaeus) is a small tree, found in the major part of Europe, eastwards to Ukraine and the Caucasus. The wood of this species is very hard and was formerly used to make butchers’ skewers and spindles for wool-spinning, hence its common name. The generic name is from the Greek eus (‘good’) and onoma (‘name’). It is not clear why Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, also known as Carl von Linné (1707-1778), gave it this name.
The gorgeous fruits are red, pink, or purplish capsules, opening late in the autumn to reveal the black seeds, which are coated with a fleshy orange layer. These fruits look very inviting indeed, but the seeds contain highly toxic alkaloids, and several cases of poisoning of children have been reported.
A close relative, the eastern burningbush (Euonymus atropurpureus), is presented in the caption East American autumn foliage.
The gorgeous spindle-tree fruits are red, pink, or purplish capsules. These pictures are all from nature reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark, where this species is very common. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The fruit of Chinese tallow-tree (see caption Asiatic autumn foliage above) is a three-lobed capsule with three valves. When the fruit is mature, the walls of the capsule fall off, revealing three round seeds, covered in a white tallow.
The seeds of Chinese tallow-tree are eaten by various bird species, including brown-headed thrush (Turdus chrysolaus) (top), grey treepie (Dendrocitta formosae) (centre), and tree sparrow (Passer montanus). These birds are all presented in depth on the page Animals: Birds in Taiwan. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The fruit of golden-rain tree (Koelreuteria elegans), described above under caption Asiatic autumn foliage, is a reddish, purplish, or yellowish, three-lobed capsule, containing a few black seeds.
In autumn, fruits of golden-rain tree attain various colours. These were photographed in Taichung, Taiwan. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In winter, fruits of golden-rain tree turn brownish. – Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The European crab apple (Malus sylvestris) is distributed in most of Europe, eastwards to Ukraine and the Caucasus. In northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, it is rare or absent. The specific name sylvestris means ‘growing in forests’. However, crab apple thrives best in sunny conditions and is mainly found at forest edges. The small fruits are pure yellow, as opposed to domestic apples (Malus pumila), most of which are more or less red.
In the past, the crab apple was thought to be the most important ancestor of the cultivated apple. However, research has shown that the main ancestor is in fact Malus sieversii, which originates in Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Researchers believe that this apple was brought to Europe by traders, who travelled on the famous Silk Road, by which Asian goods were brought to Europe, and vice versa. Over the years, this Kazakh apple has been crossed with the European crab apple and other wild species, growing in Siberia and the Caucasus, and further crossbreeding has resulted in today’s sweet apples.
In England, the apple was first mentioned by King Alfred in about 885, in his translation of Liber Regulae Pastoralis (‘The Book of Pastoral Rules’, also known as ‘Gregory’s Pastoral Care’), a treatise on the responsibilities of the clergy, written by Pope Gregory I around 590.
Apples play a significant role in Greek, Norse, and Christian mythology.
In Ancient Greece, it is told, King Peleus was about to marry the beautiful sea nymph Thetis, but, unfortunately, he forgot to invite the goddess of strife, Eris, to the wedding. As a revenge, Eris let a golden apple roll in among the guests, and in the fruit skin, she had carved: “For the most beautiful one.” Three of the goddesses, Hera, Athene, and Aphrodite, began quarrelling about the ownership of this title, and Zeus referred them to Prince Paris of Troy. The three goddesses went to Troy, each promising Paris a reward, if he chose her: Hera promised him power, Athene fame and wisdom, and Aphrodite the most beautiful woman. He chose the latter – hereby indirectly causing the long siege of Troy, related in Homer’s poem Iliad.
Traditionally, the golden apple is considered to be the sweet apple, but it is just as likely to have been pomegranate (Punica granatum), as the apple may not yet have been introduced to Greece at the time, when the text was written.
In Norse mythology, the goddess Idun had a special position, as she was in charge of a chest, in which she kept her magic apples. When the æsir felt old and tired, they took a bite of one of these apples, and immediately they felt young again.
One of the most famous Christian myths is about The Fall of Man. Genesis, Chapter 3:1-7, reads as follows:
Now the serpent (…) said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die’.”
“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food (…) and she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Traditionally, the Fruit of Knowledge is also regarded as being the apple, although the text in Genesis does not mention this. However, it is just as likely to have been pomegranate, or perhaps apricot (Prunus armeniaca), as the apple may not yet have been introduced to the Near East at the time, when the text was written.
Pomegranate is presented in depth elsewhere, see Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry.
European crab apples are completely yellow. If they have any red on them, they are hybrids with domestic apples. This pure crab apple tree was photographed on the island of Langeland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sweet apples on a naturalized apple tree, nature reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fallen apples are a popular food item among butterflies, wasps, and flies. This red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) is sucking juice of a decaying apple, likewise in nature reserve Vorsø. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fruits of great burdock (Arctium lappa), called burs, are hard and globular, and the surface is filled with hooked barbs, which attach themselves to socks, trousers, animals’ pelts etc. In this way, the fruits are often being spread a considerable distance from the mother plant.
The generic name is derived from the Greek arktos (‘bear’), in allusion to the burs, which are somewhat similar to bear claws. Of course, the name burdock also refers to the burs, which, when ripe, will attach themselves to any animal fur, sweater, or trousers, which happens to bruise the plant, and dock is a term applied to various plants with large leaves.
One authority states that the specific name stems from the Celtic word llap (‘hand’), alluding to the ‘gripping’ burs. The popular name herrif is derived from two Anglo-Saxon words, haeg (‘hedge’), and reafe (‘robber’), perhaps referring to the vigorous growth of this species.
In his delightful book All about Weeds, American botanist Edwin Spencer (1881-1964) writes about the burs: “Sometimes (a boy) is mean enough to throw a bunch of the burs into the hair of a rival, or even into the hair of the girl he thinks has snubbed him. She who has had this experience needs no technical description of the burdock.”
Read more about burdock on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry. Its usage in folk medicine is dealt with at Traditional medicine.
Fruits of great burdock with spiders’ webs and dew drops, photographed on a dark October morning, nature reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sailing on the wind
In autumn, many plants spread their seeds with the aid of the wind, which may carry the seeds long distances.
Willows (Salix) and their close relatives, the poplars (Populus), both produce seeds with a fluffy appendix, and at times, the air is filled with millions of flying seeds from these two genera. Most willows spread their seeds in late summer, but the bay willow (Salix pentandra) does so late in the autumn.
This smallish tree, growing to 15 m tall, is native to the boreal zone of Eurasia, far into Siberia. It has become naturalized elsewhere, including North America. The specific name pentandra is from the Greek pente (‘five’), referring to the male flowers, which have five stamens. The common name refers to the glossy, dark green leaves, which resemble those bay laurel (Laurus nobilis).
In this picture from Jutland, Denmark, seeds of bay willow are sailing into the wind. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The original distribution area of the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is Temperate Eurasia, but today it is found in most temperate and subtropical areas of the world. The obsolete specific name densleonis, as well as the common name lion’s tooth, refer to the serrated leaves. In French, densleonis became dent de lion, in English corrupted to dandelion.
The names monks-head and priest’s-crown were commonly used in the Middle Ages, an allusion to the naked flower disc, which resembles a monk’s or a Catholic priest’s shorn head. The names pee-a-bed and wet-a-bed (and the French name piss-en-lit) refer to its diuretic properties, whereas blowball refers to the popular game of blowing off the seeds.
Young leaves have a high content of vitamin C and are used in salads, and they may also be boiled as a vegetable or in soups. In Wales, the two-year-old root is chopped up and mixed with the leaves in salads. In Berkshire and Worcestershire, and in Scandinavia, wine is made from the flowers. The root is dried and pounded to make substitute coffee.
Girls often make garlands of the flowering stems, placing them around their hair, and a popular game among children as well as adults is to try blowing off the seeds of a flowerhead, all at once. Formerly, all kinds of divinations were connected with the ability to blow off the seeds.
The dandelion is dealt with in depth on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry, and its medicinal usage is described on the page Traditional medicine.
Fruiting dandelions, nature reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. The withered plants are common sorrel (Rumex acetosa). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Common goat’s-beard (Tragopogon pratensis) is native to Europe and northern Asia, and has also become widely naturalized in North America. The sepal-like bracts, which surround the flowerhead, contract before noon, closing it, which has given rise to a popular name of the plant, Jack-go-to-bed-by-noon. During this contraction, the seeds protrude from the flowerhead, hereby resembling a goat’s beard.
Close-up view of a fruiting common goat’s-beard, Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Due to its numerous creeping underground stems, the Eurasian creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) – in America called Canada thistle – is a most troublesome weed in most cooler parts of the World. Just a tiny bit of underground stem is able to produce a large colony of plants, sending up stems at regular intervals.
In his delightful book All about Weeds, American botanist Edwin Spencer (1881-1964) writes: “(…) it is, perhaps, the worst weed of the entire United States. (…) Its seeds serve as food for goldfinches and sparrows, but even this good turn is offset by the fact that the birds, in getting their food, set free the winged seeds, and wherever those seeds fall trouble begins. The plant is outlawed in every northern State; thirty-seven States in all legislate against this rogue, but outlawing it has had very little effect upon it.”
One individual creeping thistle can spread thousands of seeds. – Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rosebay willow-herb (Chamerion angustifolium), known in North America as fireweed, is native throughout temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere, mainly the boreal forest zone. It thrives in new forest clearings and will readily invade other disturbed areas. An excellent example of the ability of rosebay willow-herb to completely take over newly abandoned fields may be studied on the page Vorsø on my mind: Expanding wilderness.
Fruiting rosebay willow-herb, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Common bulrush (Typha latifolia), also known by many other names, including broadleaf cattail, cat-o’-nine-tails, and great reedmace, is distributed in an enormous area, found in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. It has been introduced elsewhere and is regarded as an invasive plant in Australia and Hawaii.
The inflorescence of bulrushes is very distinctive, situated on a long spike, male flowers above, females below, both very densely clustered. The female part evolves into a hard, brown, cylindrical mass of seeds, which are spread by the wind in late autumn, winter, or the following spring.
Peeled stems and leaf bases, and young flower spikes, can be eaten raw or cooked. The rhizomes are also edible after cooking and removing the skin.
The fanciful name cat-o’-nine-tails was given in allusion to the cat o’ nine tails, or just the cat, a whip consisting of nine knotted ropes, designed to lacerate the skin and cause intense pain. This medieval type of punishment was formerly widely used in the British Royal Navy and Army. The name probably refers to the leaves of common bulrush, which often stand erect side by side, and may thus resemble this type of whip. The name cattail refers to the shape of the inflorescence.
Fruiting stems of common bulrush are often long-lived, spreading seeds far into the following spring, like these, photographed in February, central Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Fruiting stem of common bulrush, covered in rime, nature reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sea aster (Tripolium pannonicum, also called Aster tripolium or Tripolium vulgare), is native to seashores of Eurasia and northern Africa, and is occasionally found in inland salt marshes. It has pretty flowerheads with pinkish-blue rayflorets and yellow disc florets, and in fruit it is also attractive with small dense balls of fluffy seeds.
Fruiting sea aster, Roskilde Fjord, Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Late autumn is Halloween time. This word is a contraction of Hallows’ Evening, also known as All Saints’ Eve, a festival taking place in several countries on 31st October, the evening before All Hallows’ Day. This evening used to signify the beginning of a 3-day observance of Allhallowtide, a time dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed.
It is generally believed that many Halloween traditions originated from ancient Celtic harvest festivals, particularly Samhain, which was changed to Hallows’ Evening by early Christians.
These days, on Hallows’ Evening, Christians in many parts of the world attend church services, or light candles on the graves of the dead. Earlier, some Christians would abstain from eating meat on this evening.
In the United States, Halloween is more of a ‘fun-fair’, which includes various activities, such as trick-or-treating, where children, clad in fanciful costumes, walk from house to house, asking for treats with the phrase “Trick or treat”. The treat usually comes in the form of candy, or sometimes money. The trick part used to be a threat of doing some mischief, if the house owner didn’t produce a gift, but today, of course, this threat means nothing.
Other activities include costume parties, carving pumpkins into Jack-o’-lanterns, lighting bonfires, playing pranks, telling scary stories, or watching horror films. (Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Halloween, in which a list of references is given)
Morning sun on pumpkins, cultivated for making Jack-o’-lanterns during Halloween, Funen, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Jack-o’-lantern, a Halloween man, made from a pumpkin, Perry Center, New York State. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Halloween family, Cummington, Massachusetts. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Autumn is also the time, when numerous northern bird species undertake the long migration between their breeding areas in temperate and arctic regions and their wintering quarters in the Subtropics and Tropics.
In northern Europe, one of the first signs of autumn is the gathering of large flocks of swallows and martins, which, for some days, are perched on telegraph wires before their migration. One day, they are suddenly gone.
Before their southbound migration, hundreds of sand martins (Riparia riparia) are gathered on telegraph wires, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Huge numbers of waders spend the winter in tropical areas. In 1988, I participated in an expedition, the main purpose of which was to estimate numbers of wintering waders and other birds along the Tanzanian coast. This trip is related in detail on the page Travel episodes – Tanzania 1988: Experiencing African bureaucracy.
The curlew sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea) is a numerous wader, breeding on the Siberian tundra. The specific name is derived from the Latin ferrugo (‘iron rust’), from ferrum (‘iron’), given in allusion to its rusty-red breast of the breeding plumage. It winters mainly in Africa, and in some numbers in southern Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.
A huge flock of curlew sandpipers, a few crab plovers (white birds), a few greater sand plovers (stubby bill), and a single grey plover (black patch on underwing), Msimbazi Beach, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The small sanderling (Calidris alba) is circumpolar breeder, encountered in most areas of the High Arctic. It spends the winter in temperate, subtropical, and tropical areas, as far south as southern South America, South Africa, and Australia. The popular name is derived from Old English sand-yrðling (‘sand-ploughman’), referring to its feeding habit of running along sandy shores, constantly sinking its bill into the sand in search of food. The specific name is Latin, meaning ‘white’, referring to its white winter plumage.
Feeding sanderlings, Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar, Chile. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The ruff and reeve (Calidris pugnax) (the ruff is the male, the reeve the female) is a peculiar bird, which is unique among waders in that the male in breeding plumage has a huge ruff of feathers around the neck. When the breeding season begins, the males gather on an arena on a grassy spot, a so-called lek. When a female arrives at the arena, the males start fighting (in deep silence) to attract the attention of the female. She walks around to survey the entire group before choosing a male, which will mate with her. She then leaves to take care of nest-building, incubating, and chick-rearing by herself.
Formerly, this species was named Philomachus pugnax, but genetic research has shown that it is closely related to Calidris sandpipers. The specific name is derived from the Latin pugno (‘I fight’) and ax (‘inclined to’).
This bird is widely distributed in Arctic and Northern Temperate areas, from eastern England across northern Europe and Siberia, eastwards to around the Kolyma River. The wintering area includes southern and western Europe, Africa, southern Asia, and Australia.
These wintering ruffs and reeves are roosting a rather unusual place, a stone platform at the sacred lake of Pushkar, Rajasthan, India. A few of the males have retained a bit of the ruff. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The greenshank (Tringa nebularia) is a common breeding bird in the northern subarctic zone, from northern Scotland and Scandinavia across the Siberian taiga to Chukotka and the Kamchatka Peninsula. It is migratory, spending the winter in Africa, southern Asia and Australia.
The generic name Tringa was given to the green sandpiper (Tringa ochropus) by Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1599), who was the founder of the botanical garden of Bologna – one of the first of its kind. The name is derived from the Greek trungas, a thrush-sized, tail-bobbing wading bird, mentioned by Greek scientist and philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). (Source: J.A. Jobling 2010. The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names)
Greenshank, feeding in shallow waters, Nature Reserve Vorsø, Horsens Fjord, Denmark. Large numbers of this species pass through Denmark in autumn and spring. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The grey-tailed tattler (Tringa brevipes) breeds in northeast Siberia. It was previously named Heteroscelus brevipes, but genetic research has shown that it is closely related to Tringa sandpipers. When the breeding season is over, it migrates to Southeast Asia, Indonesia, New Guinea, and Australia. The specific name is derived from the Latin brevis (‘short’) and pes (‘foot’), whereas the popular name tattler was given in allusion to its call.
Grey-tailed tattlers, roosting on a sandy beach, Gili Air, Lombok, Indonesia. Most birds display the checkered breeding plumage, whereas the one in front is in the grey winter plumage. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The greater sand plover (Charadrius leschenaultii) breeds in semi-desert areas, from Turkey eastwards through Central Asia, spending the winter on beaches in East Africa, South Asia, and Australasia. The specific name was given in honour of French botanist and ornithologist Jean Baptiste Leschenault de la Tour (1773-1826).
The Terek sandpiper (Xenus cinereus) can be told from most other small waders by its slightly upcurved bill. It was named after the Terek River, on the west coast of the Caspian Sea, presumably because it was first observed there. This species is breeding in taiga wetlands, from Finland and Ukraine across Siberia to Russian Far East. The winter is spent in tropical areas of East Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and Australia. The generic name is from the Greek xenos (‘stranger’), whereas the specific name is derived from the Latin cinis (‘ashes’), referring to its ash-grey back in winter.
Greater sand plovers, two Terek sandpipers (yellow legs), two curlew sandpipers (in front), and a single sanderling (far right), roosting on a sandbar during high tide, Msimbazi Beach, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. A sooty gull (Larus hemprichii) and crab plovers are seen in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The medium-sized grey plover (Pluvialis squatarola), known as the black-bellied plover in North America, breeds in the High Arctic, from western Russia along the entire Arctic coast to Alaska and the Canadian Arctic islands. In winter, it may be seen at almost any coast around the world, with the exception of polar areas.
The generic name is from the Latin pluvia (‘rain’). Formerly, it was believed that when golden plovers (Pluvialis apricaria) flocked, it would mean imminent rain. The specific name is a Latinized version of sgatarola, an old Venetian name for a kind of plover.
Grey plovers and crab plovers, roosting on a sandbar during high tide, Msimbazi Beach, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Two greater sand plovers (left), a sleeping curlew sandpiper (in front), and a single ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres) (right) are also present. Huge tankers are seen in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The crab plover (Dromas ardeola) is so different from other waders that it constitutes a separate family, Dromadidae. It breeds along coasts of the entire Arabian Peninsula and the southern coast of Iran. This species is unique among waders, nesting in burrows in sandy areas and making use of the ground heat to aid incubation of the eggs. In winter, it disperses across the Indian Ocean, eastwards to the Andaman Islands and the coast of Cambodia, and along East African coasts as far south as northern South Africa and Madagascar.
Tanzania constitutes a core area for this species in winter. During our expedition in 1988 (see above), we counted about 5,400 crab plovers along the Tanzanian coast.
Crab plovers, Kirongwe, Tanzania. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
When the breeding season is over, many Arctic goose species gather in large flocks to migrate to their wintering areas in the Northern Temperate zone. Here, they mainly feed in grasslands, including fields of winter crops. For this reason, they are often regarded as pests.
One of these species is the small barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis), which mainly breeds in eastern Greenland, on Svalbard, and on Novaya Zemlya. Since the 1970s, a separate population has been breeding on islands and along coasts of the Baltic Sea, in Finland, Estonia, Sweden, and Denmark. This population is steadily increasing.
The generic name is a Latinized form of brandgás (‘burnt goose’), the Old Norse name of a related species, the brent goose (Branta bernicla), referring to the mainly black plumage of this species. Formerly, the brent goose and the barnacle goose were regarded as one species, and a Medieval belief was that they hatched from goose barnacles, a type of crustaceans. Gerald of Wales (c. 1146-1223), archdeacon of Brecon, claims to have seen these geese hanging down from pieces of timber, and English botanist John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) claims to have seen the birds emerging from goose barnacle shells. This superstition persisted until the end of the 1700s.
Barnacle geese, gathered on a grass field, Møn, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
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