If Alabamians could ever get over their New England envy, they’d realize that their state’s fall leaf color packs a punch few other places in the world can claim.
You could depict New England’s fall with a kindergartener’s eight-pack of crayons, but you’d need every last shade in the 64-pack to suggest the vivid variation in colors in Alabama’s far more diverse forests.
In early November, you can count all 64 colors (and then some) with a single glance at the mountains of northeast Alabama. If you look beyond the pine plantations of south Alabama, the steep hillsides of Monroe and Clarke counties — a short drive north of Mobile — offer an intensity of leaf color unsurpassed anywhere. The color is just as beautiful in the more gently rolling areas — you just get to enjoy the color of the trees one at a time. By the end of the month, even the swamps will be lit up, where cypress and swamp maples drip a circle of fire in the black water.
New England’s fall color stands out in postcards for one very good reason: It’s monotonous. Those photos of unvarying, monochromatic red forests are briefly appealing to something as simple as a camera’s lens. But to achieve that kind of uniformity, you’d need a virtual cloned forest — a forest of nearly identical trees, made up of only a very few tree species. And that’s what many of the most often photographed New England forests are: forests that were not all that rich in the first place, but culled and sliced and diced until they’re inhabited by only a handful of species.
That’s why people drive for hours or days, hop out of their car for 15 minutes, snap a photo and drive back home. There’s nothing else to see.
Alabama’s autumn colors, on the other hand, cannot be digested in a few minutes. There’s such a spectrum of colors, you could be lost in those forests for days and still see colors you haven’t seen before.
There’s a good reason for that: The many colors of Alabama fall leaves reflect the incredible diversity of Alabama forests. A single cove in the Red Hills can support a dozen species of oaks, half a dozen kinds of hickories or magnolias, ash, beech, basswood, maples, sourwood, titi, and on and on. Trees tropical and temperate represent what is likely the greatest concentration of tree species in eastern North America. There’s no place in the Great Smoky Mountains that even comes close to that kind of diversity.
There are colors in these forests you really won’t find outside of the Deep South. The gold and orange blends of the Southern sugar maples, the peculiar chartreuse of the fringe trees, the astonishing deep bluish purple of the sweet gums, the warm rust of the bald cypress — in eight years of western North Carolina autumns, I never saw anything quite like it. And it somehow seems more brilliant precisely because these vivid colors are splashed among the dark greens of evergreen magnolias and spruce pines.
Why don’t we see it? Well, truth is, a lot of folks never see beyond their front yards. Those who never leave the suburbs will swear the only tree with color in the South is the popcorn tree. But, of course, that’s just because the suburbs are weedy with Chinese popcorn trees, and (strangely) that invasive exotic is often the only colorful tree we allow in our yards.
And you won’t see much in the way of color in those weedy, unnatural thickets that appear along the interstates. Those forests are packed with aggressive species that usually don’t show much fall color.
But take your time to explore the native forests around Little River Canyon in northeast Alabama, or on the slopes around Cheaha and the Rebecca Mountains between Montgomery and Anniston, or along the banks of the Alabama River in Monroe County, where Highway 43 winds through the Red Hills. And don’t miss the great views of the cypress in the Mobile Delta on the way.
The trouble is, you can’t capture it all in one shot. You may just have to spend the whole day photographing the many colors of an Alabama fall.
Gulf Coast Almanac
Bloom of the Month
In November, roses are at their peak along the Gulf Coast. The low light intensifies the colors, and cool dry weather prolongs the blooms and eliminates the disease problems.
Signs of the Season
Days are now so short, and the light so low, even the showy evening primrose, which usually blooms only at night, flowers all day long. Look for those flaring yellow blooms along south Alabama country roads. That rich plum purple and bright orange of wild grasses, blowing on the hills, is the signal that the brightest colors of fall are about to appear.
There’s no better time for planting shrubs, trees, lawns and perennials. Days are getting short, so don’t expect fast growth from seedlings. But this is a good time to sow plants you want to bloom or harvest next spring, including garlic bulbs, perennial onions, daffodils and other narcissus, poppies, hollyhocks and sweetpeas.
Ripe for Picking
September plantings yield carrots, radishes, broccoli, lettuce and a bunch of winter greens. If you have fresh vegetables for the holidays this year, make yourself a note: Do your spring planting in August and September!
Bill Finch has been the voice of authority on Gulf Coast gardening and the environment for more than two decades. Talk to him every Sunday morning, from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. on the Gulf Coast Sunday Morning show on Talk Radio 106.5 FM. Don’t miss him and WKRG weatherman John Nodar cutting up in the garden every Friday on News 5 at noon.
text by Bill Finch • photo by beth young