Aspens are turning yellow and orange, canyons are flaming with colors, and fruits provide feasts for wildlife. It’s a great time to get out and observe the final flings of fall.
The Rose Family is one of the most beautiful and productive families in our temperate climes.
In the grocery store we see a cornucopia cultivated apples, peaches, pears, plums, strawberries, and raspberries. On sunny slopes and forest openings birds and mammals find a similar feast of fruits provided by the Rose Family at this time of year. The background leaf color helps accentuate the display of luscious berries. This is a great year for fruits which is good because our migrating birds, small mammals including coyote and fox, and big mammals including bears, moose, and deer all relish them.
Fruits of Black Hawthorn – Crataegus douglasii – are dripping along Moose-Wilson Road, around Trail Creek, and elsewhere. Despite their inch-long thorns, these 20-25’ large shrubs or small trees appeal to bears which will climb into the crowns and scarf up the fruits. Larger bears will use their weight to bend over the branches. “Crataegus” means strong and sharp—descriptive for sure. Leaves are oval with shallow lobes and many teeth and they turn maroon or scarlet in October. Fruits are deep-red to mostly black. Another species Red Hawthorn – C. rivularis – is scarcer to find and harder to identify – slightly redder fruits and leaves are less lobed. It grows in moister sites. They are unusual to find in Wyoming.
Serviceberries – Amelanchier alnifolia – are being picked off by flocks of robins, cedar waxwings, Swainson’s thrushes, and more as they migrate south. Purple poop is apparent in coyote or fox scat – could be chokecherry as well.
Oval leaves with teeth at the end often turn a mottled maroon. After a frost the slightly wizened pomes are particularly delicious—like raisins with a touch of almond. Note the round fruits are in cymes (the stalks are variable in length) and have 5 dried sepal tips sticking out the top.
Chokecherry – Prunus virginiana – has more elongate, toothed leaves which turn a shiny orange to red. Fruits are held in racemes—on equal-length stalks off a central axis. The round berries (drupes) do not have sepals at their ends. It is important to know the difference from Serviceberries, especially as the leaves fall off, as cherry pits can be poisonous. Also the twigs have a distinctive strong odor of prussic acid (hydrocyanic acid), a precursor to cyanide which can be poisonous under certain circumstances. However, the wildlife enjoy them equally to serviceberries.
Rose hips of Nootka vs. Woods Rose stay on the thorny shrubs all winter. As with other roses, the leaves are pinnately compound—several leaflets coming off a central rachis. Hips are swollen hypanthiums—the merged bases of the sepals, petals, and stamens that swell over the pistils that turn into seed-like fruits (achenes) inside. The hypanthium is a tough, nutritious casing with lots of vitamin C. The five dry extensions from the top of the hip are actually the dried sepals that surrounded the flower petals.
Nootka Roses – R. nutkatensis – usually have only 1 (2) hip on a stalk which is 2-3x larger than the hips of Woods Rose and they have longer sepals. Rose hips are most favored by deer in the winter.
Woods Rose – R. woodsii – has several hips together. I remember the name by thinking that many trees are in the woods.
Mountain Ash – Sorbus scoparia – fruits are abundant this year. Here again the leaves are pinnately “compound” and arranged alternately up the stem. The fruits and foliage colors are some of the most dramatic out there.
The berries may not be eaten right away, leaving good sustenance for wildlife into winter.
Shrubs with Opposite leaves:
Red Elderberry – Sambucus racemosa – at first may look similar to Mountain Ash with big bunches of red fruits and compound leaves. However, elderberry is overall coarser in appearance. Stems are finger-thick, the leaves heftier and arranged opposite on the stem, and the plant stinks. Different plants have different concentrations of hydrocyanic acid that makes individuals more or less appealing to wildlife and can cause diarrhea in humans if fruits are not prepared properly for wine and jellies, etc.
European Black Elderberry – S. nigra – has been used to make whistles—the core of the stems (pith) is very soft. People used to hollow out the cavity, add a few holes along the stem—and voilá a whistle! Sambucol, an over-the-counter medicine, has been proven efficacy as an anti-viral flu medication. We have two varieties of Elderberry: S. r. var. racemosa has red berries and smooth leaves, S. r. var. melanocarpa has black fruit and slightly downy vestiture on the leaves.
Red-stemmed Dogwood – Cornus stolonifera – is a favorite and readily available landscape shrub. It has tidy, opposite oval leaves with parallel veins that turn a beautiful maroon on red stems.
The white flowers form bunches of white berries which are high in lipids—concentrated energy for migrating birds: They soon disappear. Moose also love to munch – prune – the red stems. In Montana they say dogwood is “moose ice cream!” Dogwoods grow mostly along streams.
Snowberries – Symphoricarpus spp. – are sporting soft white berries. The Greek root of the botanical name means “to bear together…fruit”. Which indeed it does – like piglets to my eye. Some flowers were clearly pollinated, other flowers were not.
Sometimes the foliage—opposite oval leaves–turns a bright yellow under aspens, but this seems a bit spotty this year.
The slightly mushy berries – soft like marshmallows – are not for us humans to eat. The berries contain an alkaloid chelidonine which can cause “mild symptoms of vomiting, dizziness, and slight sedation in children.” Sources vary on the level of toxicity—my thought is to not yield to temptation. That being said, Snowberries are hardy landscape shrubs and are good wildlife food with early leaves in spring and berries that grouse and others will eat. Our two Teton County species – S. oreophilus and S. albus – are hard to tell apart except in flower.
Related to snowberries – both are in the Honeysuckle family – Utah Honeysuckle – Lonicera utahensis – also has bright yellow oval opposite leaves.The twin red fruits are long gone.
When leaves fall off, the oval buds with 4-6 scales on relatively thick stems (compared to the thin twiggy stems of snowberries) help differentiate the two cousins during dormancy.
Mountain Maple – Acer glabrum – is a very shrubby plant that can grow to 15 feet tall. Winged samaras await the wind to break them loose so that the winged seeds can helicopter to new lands. The rather skimpy, lobed leaves turn variable colors along our mountain trails and slopes here in Teton County.
Much more brilliant and barely in the county is Big-tooth Maple – Acer grandidentatum. Joyce Batson took this picture last week along Rte 26 near the Palisades Reservoir in Idaho.
The leaves are arger with bigger teeth than Mountain Maple and the samaras are broader.
An Odd Ball:
Silverberries – Eleagnus commutata – are dangling among silvery leaves in the Snake River floodplain and elsewhere. Right now the fruits and leaves are similar in color—the fruits are hard to see.
Birds eat the berries and moose particularly like the plants. Otherwise, it has moderate wildlife value. The 10-15′ tall rhizomatous shrubs can fix their own nitrogen, enhancing their own growth and that of other plants nearby. Where our floodplains are used for pasture, cattle tend to graze other species leaving alone the less palatable (to cattle) silverberries, which remain standing tall.
For Pure Color:
Mountain Huckleberries – Vaccinium membraceum – color up along forest paths and openings. Foliage is more intense with more sun. The delicious fruits are gone, but the leaves bring delight to the late season hiker.
Often overlooked (at least by this botanist), False Huckleberry – Menzeisii ferruginea – turns a clear yellow in large patches along canyon trails such as Cascade Canyon. Below it is mixed in with the much larger leaves of Thimbleberry.
False Huckleberry leaves are oval, hairy, slightly sticky, and usually larger than its relative Mountain Huckleberry. And it can have a slightly skunky odor. The fruits are dry capsules, similar to its other relative azalea. For this reason it is also called False Azalea.
Birch-leaf Spiraea – Spiraea betulifolia – lines many woodland trails with a sweep of yellow. The oval, toothed leaves alternating up thin, rhizomatous stems contain salycidic acid – the same ingredient found in willows. Salicylic acid is the original source of aspirin, now synthesized as acetylsalicylic acid.
Of note, Spiraea is in the Rose Family, but does not have the luscious fruit of its many relatives. Instead, 5 dry fruits sit in each tiny cup of a hypanthium.
Found along streamsides or up canyon trails, Thimbleberry – Rubus parviflora – has the largest “simple” (vs. compound) leaves in the valley for shrubs. Lobed like a maple, these solar collectors are expansive, and turn bright yellow as they slowly go limp.
As shorter days and cooler temperatures trigger dormancy, the vessel system to the leaves is slowly sealed off, reducing available water and nutrients. Green chlorophyll dies revealing yellow pigments that have been there all summer long capturing different light spectrums. And then these too fade as their purpose is extinguished and leaves crinkle brown and drop. Buds remain the hope for the next year.
Different plant species have different arrays of yellow to orange pigments (carotenoids), and some manufacture additional red to purple anthocyanins in the fall if warm days are followed by cool, but not freezing nights. This temperature combination enables plants to produce more sugars to fuel formation of these extra pigments. Moisture can also affect the amount of color. So each species, each plant, and each year the foliage display is unique.
The season is very short. Enjoy getting out for the fall extravaganza!
Frances Clark, Wilson, WY
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