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Tree leaves are footprints of species
By Li Anlan

The sudden chill that followed a week of rain isn’t reason to despair. The temperature drop has painted the autumn landscape in a bright palette of red and golden leaves.
It may be a reminder that winter is just around the corner, but what a magnifi- cent way to farewell summer. The golden ginkgo and phoenix trees, fire red creep- ers and sweetgums are sporting splendid foliage that will delight walkers and photographers.

Though the autumn turn is a bit later than usual this year, there’s still time to enjoy the seasonal transition, according to Xiu Meil- ing, a landscape architect at the Shanghai Botanical Garden.

“However, the sudden drop in temperature may shorten the time we have to appreciate autumn splendor,” Xiu explained. Persistent rain and wind tend to force trees to drop their leaves more quickly, she said.

The place to view autumn foliage at its best is the Botanical Garden. For over a month, various species of trees will turn red and gold, one after another.

“The taxodiaceae family best represents how the color of the trees changes in the cycle of seasons,” Xiu said. “The trees are bright green in spring, blackish-green in summer and golden orange in winter.”

One of the most beautiful spots in the garden is the stand of maples that includes Japanese maple, Faber’s maple and Shan- dong maple. Maples are famous for putting on a truly colorful show.

In late fall when most of the leaves have fallen, it’s time to look for “smurfberries” — the small red fruit of shrubs, privets and trees that will hang on during the winter months.

“These bright red autumn berries don’t wither away on the coldest days, reminding us of the vigor of nature,” Xiu said.

The diverse colors of autumn foliage reflect the different pigments of each plant species, explained Xiu. Leaves that change color contain large amounts of chlorophyll, lutein, carotene and anthocyanins.

“Under natural conditions, the chlorophyll is unstable but synthesizes fast, so most leaves are green in spring and summer,” she said. “Then in the autumn, the drop in tem- perature blocks the synthesis of chlorophyll, causing the carotene and anthocyanins to increase, so the leaves turn red, orange and yellow.”

Red leaves are the result of long-term growth, the declining interaction of antho- cyanins and chlorophyll, and the pH effect of leaf cells. Notable plants with red leaves include creepers, sweetgums, red maples and Chinese tallow trees.

Yellow-colored leaves predominate in ginkgos, pomegranates and the oriental plane tree. They reflect change in the amount of carotene in the leaves.

Creepers are usually the earliest to change color in Shanghai’s more humid areas. Defo- liation is not far off when red leaves appear, but if the leaves are burned by too much sun in summer, they don’t change color.

Japanese zelkova is also among the first species to turn dark red and reddish brown. The foliage on the same tree may show different colors and can be affected by soil conditions and pollution.

Autumn foliage is also related to a tree’s age and growth. More mature trees turn color more easily than younger ones,
and weaker trees are also more prone to changes. “In the Botanical Garden, weak ginkgo trees turns yellow from mid-November, while stronger trees wait until the start of December,” Xiu said. “Some leaves fall one week after changing color.” She added, “The radiative cooling in city suburbs is higher than downtown, so the color changes there appear earlier.” Not all red-colored trees reflect autumn foliage. “Some trees are red all year around, such as cherry plums and purple-leaf sand berries,” she said.

Ginkgo 银杏

Scientific name: Ginkgo biloba

For many people in Shang-hai, the ginkgo is the iconic symbol of the autumn season. A species native to China, the ginkgo is widely grown in parks and along side- walks. The trees grow very slowly with a long life expectancy. They don’t bear nuts until 20 years after planting. Ginkgo leaves are fan-shaped and turn golden yellow in autumn. The ginkgo nut is also known as bai guo, or “white fruit.” It’s a traditional Chinese ingredient in many desserts and congee. Although the nut is believed to have health benefits, it can be poisonous if eaten raw or in excess.

Wingleaf soapberry 无患子

 Scientific name: Sapindus saponaria

The bright yellow foliage of wingleaf soapberry is also a star of the season. The small to medium-sized deciduous tree’s root and nuts are believed to have medicinal prop- erties, and the peel containing saponin can be used as soap. The wingleaf soapberry is commonly found in eastern, southern and south- western China.

Chinese firethorn 火棘

Scientific name: Pyracantha fortuneana

Also called graberi, this tree is an evergreen shrub in the rosaceae family. It produces abundant red berries that will last through the winter. Each spike can grow 10 to 20 small ber- ries that turn red beginning at the end of September. Birds love the berries.

Dawn redwood 水杉

Scientific name: Metasequoia glyptostroboides

The autumn foliage of the dawn redwood is a foxy reddish-brown. It’s among the last trees to display autumn foliage, usually occurring in late December. Native to the region border on Chongq- ing City, and Hubei and Hunan provinces, the dawn redwood was once considered extinct. Then, in the late 1940s, a 400- year-old tree was found in Moudaoxi
on the border of Hubei and Sichuan provinces. Since then, the tree has been protected and is widely cultivated across China and around the world.

Japanese Zelkova 榉树

Scientific name: Zelko-va serrata

A flowering, slow-growing plant native to East Asia, the Japanese zelkova is wide- spread in China, where it’s grown as an ornamental tree. It can grow as tall as 30 me-ters. The autumn foliage is yellow, orange and red. The wood of the Japanese zelkova is often used for furniture and in making taiko drums. 

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