Urban Leaf Peeping Lights up Downtown Open Spaces

An amazing array of reds, yellows and oranges have dominated the landscape over the past several weeks, so much so that many in the downtown neighborhoods have decided not to leave the city to get a healthy dose of festive fall “leaf peeping.”

Instead, many are opting for Urban Leaf Peeping, a new term dubbed for those who stayed in the city to see this year’s amazing foliage rather than traveled north to see pretty much the same thing.

Park advocates and tree experts all agreed that this has been an exceptional year, and it has been very colorful in the city as well – making Urban Leaf Peeping a worthwhile avocation.

On the Boston Common, the Public Gardens, the Comm Ave Mall, the Fens and even in small parks like Hayes Park in the South End or the blazing Elms in the South End’s Franklin Square, the colors have been magnificent this year in particular.

“The Common, the Garden, and the Mall together make up an ecosystem that supports an interconnected web of nature,” said Liz Vizza, of the Friends of the Public Gardens. “As autumn approaches, temperatures fall and days shorten, igniting the canopy. This brilliant display of color draws our attention, captivates our imagination, and explains why so many people want to be in the parks to enjoy the vibrant colors.”

Evan Bradley of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy said they have found many people enjoying the leaves this fall from the Common to Franklin Park in Dorchester – and everywhere in between.

“It’s been a magnificent year for foliage in and around the entire Emerald Necklace,” said Bradley, who noted the foliage has been particularly astounding along the RiverWalk and Muddy Rivers. “Sometimes the trees grow up all around you and they are multi-colored and you can feel the energy. It’s a beautiful change in nature and I’d have to say it’s the best year I’ve seen since I’ve been in Boston.”

Bradley said staying local to look at the leaves is likely something more and more people will do as they discover park areas in their neighborhood that they’ve never been to – particularly if they take a guided tour or use the Conservancy’s mobile leaf peeping app.

“We certainly feel that’s something people should do,” he said. “It’s beautiful up north, but if you think, we have 1,100 acres of parkland in the Emerald Necklace right in the backyards of hundreds of thousands of residents. We’re lucky to have that in the city. Not every city has that.”

And certainly not every city can boast the kinds of foliage that Boston has, but that has a lot to do with climatology and plant biology, according to Biology Professor Richard Primark of Boston University.

Primark, editor of Biological Conservation, said leaves change color because the green pigments in the leaves begin to break down in the fall. The nitrogen in the leaves begins to be transferred to the twigs for winter, and that leaves the underlying yellow, red and orange pigments behind. Those colors are typically covered up by the green pigments, but they show in the fall when the green moves inside for winter.

That said, recent research suggests that New England trees are actually special in the way they have adapted to the region’s crazy weather. In the last five years, researchers from Boston University, Harvard University and the University of Connecticut have made some very interesting discoveries as to why the trees here seem so much more colorful.

Primark said one discovery is they believe trees are making extra red pigment to protect them from the mild fall temperatures – a way for the leaves to keep from being sunburnt in the warm, sunny September and October days.

They also found the same species of trees adapt differently in New England.

“Plants in the Northeast United States have just a lot more red pigment in them than similar species of trees occurring in Europe and eastern Asia,” he said. “One reason is our climate is very unusual. New England has the most variable climate of any area in the world. People are realizing a lot of trees here have a lot of unusual features in them to deal with this extremely variable climate we have…In Europe, the climate is much more predictable and the trees tend to lose leaves at a fairly regular time of the year. In New England, the timing of the first frost is the variable from year to year. So, the trees have developed adaptations to deal with this extremely variable climate. Having these red pigments is one adaptation.”

This year has been very good, he said, because the conditions are just right.

Too much moisture results in leaves falling off in mid-Autumn with no change in color. Too little moisture and too warm temperatures cause them to fall off very early.

And of course the frost and wind also play a role.

“A very special feature is this is a very, very late year,” he said. “The best conditions for fall foliage are when you have cool nights, but not freezing, and warm sunny days without a lot of wind and no frost – with moderate amounts of moisture. We have beautiful foliage (in the city). Certainly we have among the most beautiful trees. We have an abundance of Red Maples in the city, which are probably the most beautiful single tree. Also, in the Boston parks – like in Franklin Park – there is a lot of Staghorn Sumac. That shrub probably has the most dramatic color, having these compound leaves with bright yellow, orange and red colors. Those are some spectacular plants we have in the city.”

And certainly, those blazing trees have provided a refuge within the busy city for a stroll and a bit of amazement and wonder this autumn.

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