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Take a Walk in the Woods and Pay Attention to the Beech Leaves

2007 March 28

Beech leaves hanging on at Morgan Creek. Photo by Ken Moore.

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

As Dave Cook engagingly describes in The Piedmont Almanac, “There is something conclusive about the day the old brown beech leaves fall.” Dave’s observation is for the fourth week of March — and he is right on target for this seasonal occurrence in our local Piedmont region around Carrboro and Chapel Hill.
It took me more than two decades to become aware of this recurring seasonal phenomenon. Ten years ago, while driving into town, I realized that the beautiful pale copper-brown leaves that had been clinging to the low horizontal branches of a grove of beech trees the evening before were suddenly absent, having overnight carpeted the forest floor. That morning 10 years ago was April 1, an easy date to remember. I was so intrigued by that observation that I made a mental note to be acutely watchful of the lingering beech tree leaves in future years to determine whether or not an April 1 overnight dropping of beech leaves is one of those actions to anticipate as regularly as the return of the swallows or that reappearance of the hummingbird with the opening of the first columbine flower.
I haven’t maintained a precise journal, but my recollections of observations over the past ten years do note that an overnight drop of beech leaves has indeed occurred on the eve of April 1, give or take one day.
While walking two Sundays ago along the Bolin Creek through the University’s Horace Williams Tract and Carrboro’s Adams tract to enjoy the peak displays of numerous wildflowers, I was startled to realize that the forest floor was carpeted with a fresh covering of beech leaves, an entire two weeks before my, by now, anticipated sacred date of April 1. How could this be? My very own little scientific observation of a few years suddenly shattered. But wait — there may be some explanation for this irregularity. I noticed that in spite of the fresh carpet of beech leaves on the ground, there was still a dramatic display of beech leaves clinging in profusion along the limbs and branches of the beech trees throughout the forest. That recent fresh carpeting of beech leaves must have resulted from the previous evening’s heavy rain and wind dislodging those leaves less inclined to hang firm until April Fool’s eve.
So here’s a challenge for you. Make your own set of observations. Locate a grove of young beech trees in your favorite wooded area and take note of those leaves each morning and each evening during this next week. Note the day or night that they drop, seemingly all at once. Will it be April 1 again this year? And be aware of your sensation. I suspect that as you observe this seasonal event you will sense, as does Dave Cook, that indeed: “There is something conclusive about the day the old brown beech leaves fall.”
What that conclusiveness may be for each of us will vary. But I can tell you for certain that if by the day of the beech leaf drop, you have not allowed time for a walk in the woods, you will have already missed this year’s peak display of carpets of Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum) and the isolated patches of Liverwort (Hepatica americana) and scattered Spicebushes (Lindera benzion), where they have not been displaced by the two nuisance exotic invasive shrubs, Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense) and Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata). There is still time, however, to get out into the fields and forests to enjoy clumps of Wild Ginger (Hexastylis virginica and H. arifolia), little patches of Windflower (Thalictrum thalictroides) and carpets of Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) and so many other wildflowers to appear as the season progresses. One need not travel far to enjoy North Carolina wildflowers. They occur in profusion all around us in our own local fields and forests. Give yourself a healthy break—take a weekly woods walk and enjoy the nature around you.
And, here are two more seasonal notes recalled from so many past years: Look for the peak flowering of our Dogwood (Cornus florida) to be centered around April 10. And I’ll predict that one of the most bone-chilling days of the spring will be one of those three days of the first full weekend in April. It always has been, so I expect it again. But who knows, this year, perhaps not. That’s for you to observe.
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