Relaxation: Soaking in the Autumn Color


Soaking in the Autumn Color

Over the years we have heard many complaints from East Coast imports and visitors about missing “the seasons.” While natives of Sonoma County will tell you we have our seasons (wet and sunny, sunny, dry and sunny, and wet—each interspersed with fog), I know full well that what they are referring to are the glorious fall colors that abound in colder climates.

But why do trees turn colors in the fall? Deciduous trees get ready for winter weather by reabsorbing the chlorophyll that gives their leaves their green color. This process reveals the yellow pigments that were hidden in the leaves all along. The yellow color is caused by carotenoids (which also give carrots and sweet potatoes their color). Red colors are created by anthocyanins. The red pigments provide sun protection, and allow the tree to extract more nutrients from the leaves.

Having experienced the brilliant color of the East coast fall leaves firsthand, we feel confident saying that Sonoma County’s autumn is also full of color. In addition to our verdant greens, like Redwoods and Bays and Eucalyptus, which retain their color all year, we get our share of warm colors from deciduous leaves as well. Our orchards and vineyards are full of delicious shades of yellow, orange, and burnt reds. The patchwork of colors can be seen from the air in hot air balloons or by small planes, or you can simply take a drive down through the county to Healdsburg or Sonoma, or head down River Road to Forestville—in fact you don’t even have to leave the 101 to see grape rows turning hillsides into paintings of color.

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In neighborhoods and in country residences you will often find decorative trees planted to fill the need for fall color.



One the most commonly planted is Maple in its many varieties. Japanese maple, with its delicate feathery leaves, offers a dark plum or purple hue and is often grown in a dwarf height. Star maple offers a range of colors, from yellow to red with great variation in pattern and in coloring. While some maples are a solid dark red or flame orange, Star Maple (and liquid amber) show multiple hues at once.

•           Japanese Maple (See Wildwood Farm)

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•           Liquid Amber and Star Maple

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•           Other Maples

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Fruit Trees:  Persimmon

The persimmon offers both tasty fruit and beautiful trees for your yard or garden. Persimmon trees grow swiftly, but do not mature enough to bear fruit until they are 7–8 years old. These trees have roughly ovoid leaves that turn an orange/red color in the fall. Like the persimmon, the apple tree is also both delicious and beautiful. It is one of the most widely cultivated fruit trees in the U.S., and its leaves turn beautiful yellow and orange colors in the fall.

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Around Sonoma County, it is common to see poplar trees planted in a row along property lines. Poplar trees lend a sense of pastoral beauty. The poplar, aspen, or cottonwood tree grows quickly to 50–165 feet tall, and has root systems that can reach out over 120 feet from the tree. (So don’t plant them close to houses or ceramic water pipes.) Poplars’ leaves are very different depending on whether the tree is a seedling (heart-shaped laves), or mature (round, toothed leaves). In the fall, the leaves turn a beautiful yellow. If you’re trying to take a picture of a poplar tree, it won’t look like much unless you stand far away.

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Sycamore leaves carry memories of the crunch of leaves in the school yard in fall. The California sycamore has slightly star-shaped leaves, which are deeply divided with wavy edges. These are large trees, the tallest of which was measured at 158 feet with 27-foot-circumference trunk. The tree has a mottled bark, with distinctive light green foliage.


Chinese pistache

The pistacia chinensis, or Chinese pistachio tree, can grow up to 60 feet tall, and has pinnate leaves which turn yellow, orange, and red in the fall. The tree also produces small red to blue balls (drupe).

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The ginkgo biloba, or maidenhair tree, first appeared roughly 250 million years ago. Once growing throughout the world, its range shrank down, until by 2 million years ago it only grew in a small area in China. Now, however, the tree is cultivated around the world. The trees stand 60–115 feet tall, and have distinct, fan-shaped leaves, which turn bright yellow in the fall. It is also known for its medicinal properties.


Chinese tallow

The Chinese tallow tree, or triadica sebifera, is also known as the Florida aspen, chicken tree, gray popcorn tree, and the candleberry tree. It is native to eastern Asia, and has become invasive in parts of the southern U.S. The leaves are broad rhombic to ovate in shape with smooth edges, and in the autumn, they turn bright shades of yellow, orange, purple, and red. This highly ornamental tree grows to roughly 20 feet tall, but some types can reach 40–50 feet. The tree produces both male and female flowers on the same plant.

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Callery pear

The callery pear, or pyrus aristocrat, is native to China and Taiwan. It is an attractive, flowering tree with narrow, roughly oval leaves that turn an amazing array of colors in the fall. The leaves turn red, orange, and deep purple, while other leaves on the tree remain bright green. In the spring, the tree sports white blossoms, making it a beautiful, showy tree half the year. At full growth, it stands 25–35 feet tall, and makes a nice addition to a Northern California landscape. It should not be planted in the Midwest, where the species is considered invasive.

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Some of the most popular ornamental tees in Sonoma County are the trident maple, the October glory maple, the red sunset maple, the raywood ash, the crabapple, the sour gum, the Chinese pistache, and the aristocrat flowering pear.

For more information on the planting and care of these and other trees, visit the Urban Tree Farm Nursery in Fulton.

So next year, plant your own deciduous tree, or get out there and enjoy Sonoma County’s local color!

By Nadja Masura and Peter Rogers