Red Lanterns – Fall Woodland Walk


Following a long summer of hot, dry weather, an August with only an inch of rain and a September and October of prolonged “Indian Summer”, our normal fall weather returned. Starting on Friday and continuing through yesterday into today we have had on and off rain and strong cool winds. When I arrived to lead this tour it was still raining lightly and I wondered how many hardy people would show up.

While watching the 1:00 p.m. Trolley Tour leave, I noticed two young men approach the Visitor Center, walk up to me and ask if they were too late for the 1:00 p.m. tour. After a brief discussion, I was pleased to find out that they wanted to explore the Arboretum grounds regardless of the weather and to experience the fall colors. Dispensing with the usual administrative introduction, we set out along the east edge of Curtis Prairie headed to Teal Pond. Along the way I explained that the origin of the title of the walk comes from Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. In the October chapter he refers to allowing his dog to wander from “red lanterns” – red leaves lit by the autumn sun – in search of grouse, woodcock and jacksnipe. Today, with a solid over cast and occasional light rain the “red lanterns” of the blackberries were not shining in October sunshine. Instead most of the red black berry leaves had fallen in the rain and wind, but there were lots of colorful leaves under foot. In places we found scarlet to dark red leaves of sumacs, maples, Virginia creepers, native shrubs and woody trees.

The walk to Teal Pond had a few red blackberry leaves still clinging to the prickly stems. There were also some red dogwood leaves and a few red alder leaves. The pond was as full of water as I had seen it since a year ago after a heavy rain. According to my rain gauge over two inches of rain had fallen during the last forty-eight hours and with all the impervious services in the water shed draining into Teal Pond, its water level rises quickly. At Teal Pond we identified Song Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Eastern Phoebe, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpecker and noticed the Pileated Woodpecker holes in the small tree south of the trail.

On our way to Gallistel Woods we noticed a small bull frog from swimming down the fire lane and while examining it we heard a Pileated Woodpecker call from some where off to the east in Lost City Woods. Entering Gallistel Woods we noticed an abundance of bushes and ground plants with normal green leaves. Most of these appeared to be nonnative invasive plants whose leaves will stay green until they are killed by freezing temperatures. Fall is a good time of year to notice the abundance of nonnative vegetation compared to the native plants whose leaves turn color in autumn. Walking further into Gallistel we saw shades of yellow leaves from birches, hickories, aspen, black cherries and other trees. Most of these had already fallen earlier this fall or come down recently in the rain and strong winds. This made it easier to identify and compare them, as we could just pick them up along the trail. A brief side trip part way out Icke Boardwalk revealed red dog wood leaves, yellow aspen and cottonwood leaves and an attractive pastel of muted fall browns in the wetlands surrounding by mostly green in the distant surrounding trees. By now the rain had letup and we could hear water dripping off the trees. We also heard or saw Blue jay, Bluebird, Song Sparrows, Downy Woodpecker, Coopers Hawk, Crow and lots of American Robins.

As we walked deeper into Gallistel Woods the intensity of the color of the leaves still on the taller trees increased. Yellow was the dominant color with all the maples, hickories, and black cherries. The tall oaks stood out with the red oaks having more reddish leaves and the black oaks having more brown leaves. From my preflight walk I know the woodland colors increase as you proceed through Gallistel Woods into Wingra Woods. Due to time constraints we turned up the wildflower trail, enjoying the leaf color both above us and under foot, on our way to Longenecker Garden.

Longenecker Garden has several beautiful fall color trees. The maple collection is very impressive with its bright red and yellow trees. The crabapples are often very pretty, too. The larch collection can be a beautiful golden, but today most of the golden needles had fallen. We counted sixteen wild turkeys wandering around the lawn with a few displaying aggression towards others. Our resident immature Red-tailed Hawk swooped low over the lawn, probably trying to catch a small rodent.

When we walked through the Native Plant Garden on our way back to the Visitor Center we noticed that the beautiful “Autumn Purple Ash” had lost almost all its leaves. Instead we found numerous Gold Finches, House Finches and sparrows in the native prairie grasses and bushes. Looking out across Curtis Prairie we saw many shades of fall colors. The fall prairie grasses are a variety of browns. The cottonwood and aspen are yellow and the native dogwoods show some reds. The lighter red of the stag horn Sumac is distinguishable from the darker red of the smooth sumac. Even without sunshine, the Arboretum can be a delight of fall colors in October, though by now more of those colors are under foot rather than still up in the trees.

This year the early “Indian Summer” days brought out more brilliant colors than usual due in part to the above normal temperatures and in part to the stress of a drier than normal summer and fall. When trees are stressed, either by drought or from other factors, perhaps related to soil or things yet to be discovered, fall colors are usually more brilliant.

Levi Wood
UW Arboretum Naturalist

Located between Lake Wingra and the West Beltline Highway at 1207 Seminole Highway, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum features the restored prairies, forests and wetlands of pre-settlement Wisconsin. This 1,260-acre arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection. Educational tours for groups and the general public, science and nature-based classes for all ages and abilities, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for groups, families and individuals are available.