Forestry Commission England has offered its leaf-peeping advice for top trees to monitor for the first signs of autumn.
All eyes are on the country’s woods and forests to see how the sustained period of hot, dry weather experienced earlier this summer, or the recent cooler, wetter weather could affect autumn foliage.
In the United States of America, fans of autumn leaf colour are known as ‘leaf-peepers’ and travel far and wide to witness the seasonal turn. However for those staying closer to home, England’s woods and forests can also offer their own spectacle of colour and for some, autumn is also big business.
The National Arboretum at Westonbirt, Gloucestershire, can welcome around one third of its annual visitors during autumn, drawn in by the exotic autumn colour favourites in the tree collection. In the Forest of Dean,Symonds Yat attracts coach parties from across England and beyond to see the stunning native beech, oak and ash as they change colour across the Wye Valley.
Simon Toomer, the Forestry Commission’s Director at Westonbirt, The National Arboretum, said:
“As autumn approaches we usually expect to see the early signs of colour emerging from mid-September.
“Some of the country has seen an unseasonal drop in temperatures over the last weekend and people may wonder if this will increase the chances of early autumn colour. However, the main influence on leaf colour change is day length; once the days shorten, low temperatures can increase intensity of leaf colour, but temperature won’t be the main factor in the initial colour change.
“Our forests are very diverse and the different conditions contribute to the rich variety of tree species and colour in the forests, so in certain parts of the country it will be more common to see particular species that are known for autumn leaf colour than in others.
“Keep your eyes on the species we’ve highlighted for the first signs near you.”
Leaves that typically start to change colour first include some of the country’s native species and some of the exotic autumn showstoppers first brought to England by adventurous Victorian plant hunters in the 1800s.
Native species to look out for include common spindle, wayfaring tree, dogwood and rowan.
In forests and arboretums with more exotic species, trees to observe in the early part of the season include Persian ironwood and full moon maple.
Common spindle (Euonymus europaea) is a deciduous native tree, commonly found at the edge of woodlands. The leaves are shiny and have tiny sharp teeth along the edges that turn a rich orange-red before falling in autumn.
Wayfaring tree (Virburnum lantana) is an upright deciduous shrub with domed clusters of bead-like red fruits which ripen to black in the autumn.
Native dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) is a small broadleaf shrub. The popular ornamental plant has smooth oval leaves and characteristic curving veins that fade into a rich crimson colour in autumn.
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) is also known as a mountain ash as it grows well in high altitudes. Its leaves are pinnate, comprising of leaflets that are long, oval and toothed.
Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica) is a close relative of witch hazel. For its autumn finale, its leaves first turn yellow, then orange before becoming a fiery purple-red. It is native to northern Iran and southern Azerbaijan and is best spotted in England’s arboretums, including the Forestry Commission managed Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire or Bedgebury Pinetum in Kent.
Full moon maple (Acer japonicum) is native to Japan and southern Korea. It is an autumn showstopper with the leaves turning from bright orange to dark red. It is frequently cultivated as an ornamental plant and great examples can be found in England’s arboretums.
As autumn develops, more native trees to the British Isles come into their own. Ash, beech and oak provide golden hues from mid to late October across some of the country’s favourite forests.
Field maple is Britain’s only native maple and in a good year, its butter yellow leaves light up hedge rows and motorway verges across the country.
Visitors can experience stunning bronze beech leaves in the Forest of Dean, or visit the New Forest in Hampshire to see oak trees in fantastic autumnal glory. Alternatively, deciduous conifers also display striking gold and bronze tones during autumn and these can be found across the country, from Bedgebury Pinetum and Forest in Kent to Grizedale Forest in Cumbria.
During the season, Forestry Commission England is encouraging visitors to woods and forests to document their autumn discoveries by posting images of autumnal colour on social media channels using the hashtag #LeafPeepingUK.
With more than 1,500 forests and woods in England and over half of the population living within six miles of their nearest forest, there are ample opportunities to get out and enjoy the beautiful wash of colour and the crunch of dry foliage underfoot over the autumn months.
For more information on how to experience autumn in a forest near you visit www.forestry.gov.uk/autumn. Follow Forestry Commission England on Twitter with @ForestryCommEng and on Facebook at Forestry Commission Woods and Forests.
Forestry Commission England’s autumn colours map will be live on www.forestry.gov.uk/autumn from 1 September 2014.