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Saugus gardens in the fall

Virginia creeper_s five leaflets-2
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Here’s what’s blooming in town this week to make your walks more enjoyable

  Here we are at the start of the most popular weekend for leaf peeping.

  The Topsfield Fair, which started in 1818, opened last Friday and continues through the holiday weekend until October 10. Several Saugonians have displays and entries in the horticulture, honey and handcrafts buildings. We will also be treated on Sunday to the Hunter’s Moon, as the October full moon is often called.

  In Saugus most of our trees are still green, but here and there you spot a big splash of color as one tree turns earlier than its neighbors. Coastal areas like ours still have another week or so to go before peak color, but a drive north or inland will usually reveal more advanced coloration. If you are sticking closer to home, it’s a great opportunity to enjoy many flowers still blooming among the colorful leaves.

  Several mornings I woke to a huge group of common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula), perhaps a hundred or more, in the trees of several of my neighbors and foraging on my lawn. These birds are black, with males showing a bluish iridescence from certain angles. At this time of year many of them fly to the southeastern parts of the country in large flocks called “plagues,” looking for insects, fruits and seeds along the way. Although their songs are not particularly melodious, they chatter excitedly when they all stop en route and it’s easy to imagine them discussing the scenery and other details of their travels.

  I hope you will forgive me for bringing up poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) again, but its color is spectacular this week. If you’re not sure you can recognize this plant, it is a good time to be reminded to avoid suffering the uncomfortable rash after raking leaves, planting fall flowers or spring bulbs or taking an autumn walk. Poison ivy often thrives very close to sidewalks and other disturbed areas. Some leaves may still be green, while other sections of the same vine may have vivid red, orange, yellow or even purplish fall color. Foliage may be shiny or dull. You may see small white berries, which are food for many birds. While the birds eat the berries, the seeds often pass right through their digestive tract. As a result, you may often find new poison ivy plants at the base of trees or near fences where birds like to perch.

  The other native vine often confused with poison ivy is Virginia creeper or woodbine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). If you dare approach close enough to count the leaflets, Virginia creeper has five while poison ivy has three. Virginia creeper can actually stick to walls and tree trunks as well as sprawl over tree and shrub branches. Rooting along the ground it may trip up unsuspecting people straying from a trail. As a climber on a fence or tree trunk, it can be ornamental, especially in the fall. While most people have no allergies to this vine, a few with especially sensitive skin may experience some irritation and even blisters. Depending on amount of sunlight, Virginia creeper’s fall color may be vivid red, yellowish, purple tinged or even pinkish. The most vivid reds usually occur in sunny locations, while the pinks or yellows are more likely to be in the shade. Berries on Virginia creeper are deep blue on red pedicels. They are sometimes used in seasonal arrangements. Migrating birds often play a role in distributing seeds of this vine just as they do with many others.

  A very close relative which also has five leaflets is grape woodbine, thicket creeper, or false Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus inserta). Also found in the eastern United States, it lacks the sticky stem tips, and instead climbs by curling tendrils over branches. Sometimes the leaves are shinier than Virginia creeper, but this is not always a reliable distinction.


  Editor’s Note: Laura Eisener is a landscape design consultant who helps homeowners with landscape design, plant selection and placement of trees and shrubs, as well as perennials. She is a member of the Saugus Garden Club and offered to write a series of articles about “what’s blooming in town” shortly after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was inspired after seeing so many people taking up walking.

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A column of poison ivy climbs a tree near the Saugus River and provides a contrast to surrounding greens. (Courtesy photo to The Saugus Advocate by Laura Eisener)
Three grackles and a mourning dove-2
Three grackles and a mourning dove compete for water at the birdbath in my garden. (Courtesy photo to The Saugus Advocate by Laura Eisener)
The leaf and blue-black berries-2
The leaves and blue-black berries on Virginia creeper can be very decorative, and migrating birds often seek out these fruits. (Courtesy photo to The Saugus Advocate by Laura Eisener)
Poison ivy leaf at the height of fall color-2
A poison ivy leaf at the height of fall color can be quite attractive as long as you don’t touch it! (Courtesy photo to The Saugus Advocate by Laura Eisener)

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