By Laura Eisener
As the fall foliage display continues, there are more trees in the forest showing fall color, although leaves on some species have already fallen and others have become more subdued as the season has progressed toward winter. Oak leaves may be more colorful than their reputation would suggest, but because of the tannin in many oaks that prevents the fallen leaves from breaking down as quickly as many other species, we tend to see them in their winter browns for a longer period than their brighter fall colors. Most often Eastern white oak (Quercus alba) leaves turn red in the fall, but sometimes they may be yellow, as in the cluster of leaves in Breakheart Reservation pictured above. As with other trees, leaves often fall off individually, but sometimes small branches are chewed by squirrels or fall as the windy weather snaps them off. White oak foliage can be recognized by its rounded lobes, not pointed and bristle-tipped as in red oaks (Quercus rubra), black oaks (Quercus velutina) and some other common oak species in this area. White oaks also usually have less bitter acorns because there is less tannin in them, and the acorns are produced every year rather than in alternating years like those in the red oak group. Our white oaks are very strong limbed trees – used for lumber – and often very wide branching at maturity if they are in an open landscape rather than growing close together in the forest.
After a few frosty mornings, the flowers are looking a bit the worse for wear. Some new blossoms have come out on the Sheffield mums (Chrysanthemum koreana ‘Sheffield Pink’), but most look droopy now, and the same is true of the Montauk daisies (Nipponanthemum nipponicaum). Some of the roses are still going strong though. A close look at one of the Sheffield mums’ flower heads showed an interesting growth variation – in the midst of the yellow disc florets, a small cluster of ray florets with pinkish petals had emerged. It is somewhat unusual for this to happen, but occasionally there are anomalies in plant parts, such as when you examine a flower that normally has five petals and then one blossom has six, or vice versa.
Nuts and seeds that have fallen to the ground may already be sprouting roots at this time, and the growth of roots continues until the ground is completely frozen. Up until then, many kinds of wildlife are looking for food while it is abundant. Much like all of us feasting on Thanksgiving, wildlife that will hibernate, like the groundhogs, or those that store food in their burrows for winter consumption like squirrels, are scurrying around now gathering what they can find. The gray squirrel in the above picture has discovered a collection of mixed nuts in the feeder. Local nuts they especially relish, besides acorns, include hickory (Carya spp.) and even black walnuts (Juglans nigra).
Last fall the Saugus Iron Works park rangers observed a groundhog (Marmota monax) relaxing on sunny afternoons after feasting to prepare for sleeping through the winter. Groundhogs are generally fairly cautious around people and you may have one living nearby but not see it. Earlier this fall I began to wonder why there was a lot of gravel in a pile next to my metal bulkhead, until one day I looked out the window to see the excavator – a groundhog that had dug a big burrow right under the bulkhead – and it uttered quite a high-pitched shriek when it discovered me looking out the window just above! Their plump shape, especially at this time of year, makes it easy to understand their common name groundhog, and that shriek makes another name – whistlepig – understandable as well.
Many people are also familiar with another common name in this region, woodchuck, which may derive from the Algonquian word wuchak, which was used for this animal. Some other local Native American languages, including “Massachusett,” used the name moonax, meaning digger, which became the species epithet monax. They are considered one type of marmot, a large rodent of the squirrel family (Sciuridae).
While groundhogs can sometimes be considered a nuisance in the garden – eating vegetables, berries and grains we wanted for our own food or for ornamental interest – ecologists consider their digging activities mostly beneficial as they turn the soil, mix in compost and allow air to circulate through heavy soils as they create their tunnels. Also, the burrows, whether occupied or abandoned, can provide shelter for many other mammals and insects. Rarely do their excavations become extensive enough to damage human structures.
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.
See more photo highlights at: www.Facebook.com/advocate.news.ma