An autumn day at NYBG


Tupelo (Nyssa silvatica) can rival even sugar maple for fall color. These tupelos, both large and small, are a highlight of the Native Plant Garden at the New York Botanical Garden.

This morning I was privileged to attend a master class with landscape architect Caspian Schmidt, a leader in the New Perennial Movement of naturalistic garden design. The class was wonderful–he actually showed us how he does it–but even better was spending the afternoon enjoying the gardens. Here are some highlights.


The Garden’s collection of specimen trees, many over 100 years old, cannot be beat for stately beauty. These are native oaks and sweet gums.


Even on a rather dull autumn day, sugar maples light up the landscape.


The Thain Family Forest, one of two old-growth forests in New York City, has been recently restored by removal of invasives and replanting of the understory. It’s glorious in all seasons. Although the Garden was relatively crowded today, I had it all to myself.


The brilliant red berries of winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata) light up the Native Plant Garden.


Two tupelos, side by side, but look at the color difference!


No trip to the Garden is complete without admiring the magnificent double avenue of century-old tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) that graces the front of the administration building.




Trees that turn red


Foliage of the black tupelo tree, Nyssa sylvatica. We live in the northernmost part of native range of this beautiful and stately tree.

The underlying color of foliage is yellow–leaves begin yellow and turn green when they begin to produce chlorophyll. So why do some trees go to the trouble of turning fiery red in fall?

There are several theories. Some woody plants, vines in particular, turn red to signal to birds that their berries are ripe (birds have excellent color vision). Virginia creeper and poison ivy, two native vines that are particularly beneficial to wildlife, turn fiery red in fall, usually while the trees around them are still green. Ecologists call this a foliar flag.


A foliar flag: poison ivy growing up a tree trunk turns red in early fall, while the tree that supports it is still green, to signal to birds that its berries are ripe.

But maples and tupelos both flaunt bright red foliage in fall, although their fruits ripen much earlier in the season. Why do the trees waste all the energy it takes to produce red pigment? There are many theories: to protect against insect damage or sunburn at the crucial time of leaf abscission,  or to fool insects into thinking the tree is dying; they’re neatly summarized in today’s NY Times. Read about it there, and be sure to get outside and enjoy the short-lived show. There are lots of lovely red and sugar maples around our area, and even a few tupelos.

I’ll leave you with a brain teaser: the foliage of which native shrub turns a deep purple/pink color in fall?


Native sugar maples are plentiful in our area; they turn beautiful shades or red and orange. Many dogwoods and viburnums turn dark red.