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Fall leaf-color changes pit spirit bear against science

There was a time when the real reasons weren't known for why the autumn leaves of leaf-losing trees and shrubs look so colorful prior to falling. But it was an important question just the same, since autumn's leaf-color changes clearly signaled the end of the growing season. In lieu of a scientific explanation, then, other explanations were concocted — and some were as colorful as autumn-colored leaves themselves.

For instance, according to pre-Colombian Algonquins — Native Americans that once resided in our area — a fierce fight was fought long ago and high in the sky by spirit warriors against a great-bear spirit. The battle happened during autumn and, after winning the fight, the warriors celebrated their victory by roasting the bear.

As the bear cooked, its blood and fat stained leaves red and yellow. So Algonquin lore has it that the battle between the warriors and the bear will be forever memorialized each fall when leaves change colors.

What you see is what you'll get

If you're in the market for plants with pretty fall foliage, this is the best time of year to shop – because what you see is what you'll get. Due to consistently cooler temperatures and moister soil at this time of year, too, now is also a good time to transplant potted, frost-hardy, perennial plants. But remember, leaves eventually fall to the ground and must be removed from lawns. Otherwise, they may kill the grass. On the other hand, if you're not adverse to collecting leaves, and think of them as a fall "crop," there's no such thing as harvesting too many leaves.

What? That's right. In about a year, a pile of leaves will decompose into "leaf mold," a terrific compost that I add to our vegetable beds that helps them drain more freely.

Spoiler alert! As the green chlorophyll in leaf-losing trees and shrubs diminishes, other pigments become more visible.

Plus, fewer daylight hours, in combination with chilly nights, is what actually causes leaves to turn attractive shades of yellow, orange and red during autumn.

Even so, I still prefer the Algonquin reason for why leaves change colors during fall, as opposed to the duller, scientific explanation. What about you?

This week in the garden

Our sternbergias are in full flower. These fall-blooming, crocus-like bulbs grow 4 inches tall and have shiny, buttercup-yellow petals.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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