Autumn Woodlands

Black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) outside the Visitor Center

Black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) outside the Visitor Center


“Now is the time of the illuminated woods. They have a sense of sunshine, even on a cloudy day, given by the yellow foliage; every leaf glows like a tiny lamp; one walks through their lighted halls with curious enjoyment.”—John Burroughs

Fifty “leaf peepers” set out this calm, cloudy 71-degree day to enjoy the fall festival of colorful leaves and fruits, falling leaves, and mushrooms. We visited the Wisconsin Native Plant Garden, Longenecker Horticultural Gardens, and Gallistel and Wingra woods.

Beauty was before us as we stood in front of the Visitor Center. The black tupelo or black gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica) was displaying its brilliant glossy crimson-red leaves. The orange-red leaves of the smaller black gum were gorgeous. Beneath the trees, purple New England asters were in bloom among the lovely prairie grasses.

We followed the winding path through the Native Plant Garden and past the maple-basswood garden.  Near the restrooms, we were excited to find an interesting shrub in bloom. Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is one of my favorite gifts of autumn. It is the latest native Wisconsin shrub to bloom in October and November. The almost-bare branches were decorated with tiny, star-like, yellow fragrant flowers. The fruit, a brown woody capsule, grew all summer. Soon it will burst open and propel shiny black seeds up to 50 feet away.

“In the dusky somber woodland . . . thrown in vivid constellations
gleam the hazel stars of gold. Gracious gifts of wealth untold.”—Anon.

Onward we walked through Longenecker Horticultural Gardens past the willows, bald cypress, bare-branched birch trees, and into Gallistel Woods (a southern maple-basswood restoration). Almost two inches of rain fell last night. The trails were very muddy and slippery and mosquitoes were annoying! Several visitors decided to turn back but the majority of us continued on and were treated to a memorable afternoon of beauty. Most of the trees from G2 to G1 had green leaves, but from G1 to G6 the yellow leaves of the sugar maples illuminated the woodland. A few trees with apricot leaves added a nice touch of color. We paused to take in the beauty and quietly watched the leaves drift gently down to earth.

“In that little leaf was all the poetry of fall, the first soft prelude
of the symphony just finished. The cycle was complete once more
and now the snows could come.”—Sigurd Olson

We left Gallistel at G7 and admired the colorful red maples in Longenecker Horticultural Gardens before crossing McCaffrey Drive. We noticed a large flock of dark-eyed juncos feeding on the ground. As we approached, they flew away flashing their white outer tail feathers.

We did not have enough time to hike through Wingra Woods but did go to the overlook. There we had a spectacular view of the northern mesic forest restoration. Sugar maples and red oaks dominate the woodland.

We headed back to the Visitor Center via Longenecker Horticultural Gardens. Usually peak fall color occurs around mid-October in the gardens but not this year. Perhaps next year. Too much rain?  Too warm?  Too cloudy?  We did find the following colorful fruits: orange bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), red chokeberry (Aronia), pink euonymous, very dark nannyberry (Viburnum), red and orange rose hips, blue juniper(Juniperus), red and orange winterberry (Ilex), and all sizes and colors of crabapples.

During the tour we kept a sharp lookout for mushrooms. The recent rain and warm temperatures caused many fascinating kinds to appear . . . way too many to identify today.

One last surprise awaited us as we approached the Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum sp.). The crisp brown leaves gave off a fragrance similar to sweet vanilla bakery. (The only thing missing was a good cup of coffee to go with the “make-believe” bakery treat).

The fall festival of color should continue for a few more weeks. Do not miss it! Visit often. Look, listen, and enjoy each precious moment.

“The natural world is the refuge of the spirit . . . richer
than the human imagination.”—E.O. Wilson, Biophilia, l984

—Sylvia Marek