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Leaves to Learn From This Fall

Trees. We generally drive past them and are sometimes glad when they shade the setting sun from coming straight into our eyes. We may love the leaves when they’re on their trees and shun them as they litter our lawns. The fall, however, provides an opportunity each year for us to examine them more closely. To see the tulip poplar leaf up close rather than 60 feet above us on its branch, to watch them reveal their true colors as the days shorten, the nights cool, and the chlorophyll cover falls away. Every year I enjoy hiking in the fall to give myself an opportunity to learn a few more trees or a few more things about them, since they become background noise so easily in the summer and winter.

Our Natural History teachers in the lower school know that the art of observation is about more than the eyes. We want the boys to observe with all their senses. When you go on a hike this fall, what can you learn from the leaves that you didn’t know before? This article wants to connect our sight to the other aspects of the trees, helping you not just identify the trees accurately but enjoy their place in your yard, the forest, or history.

Tulip Poplar

tulip poplar fall color

Often the tallest trees in the neighborhood and on the roadside, the tulip poplar sports buttery yellow “cat-paws” that are easy to spot from any distance. Tens of thousands of these cat feet are about to fall on our lawns. They are not, unfortunately, related either to tulips or poplars, though their spring flowers remind one of a tulip with their cup shape. We should take a moment to recognize their stateliness, though, as they provided so much shade during the summer months.

Thomas Jefferson called it the “Juno” of his garden, planting two prominently on the Eastern and Western corners of his back portico. While they had to be taken down because their age and weakness threatened to bring them down upon Monticello itself, you can now buy a letter opener made from these magnificent trees. East of the Mississippi, this tree is common enough to make an appearance in almost every tree stand I’ve ever walked through. The tulip poplar never ceases to impress me with its size, distinction, and vivid yellow in the fall.


sassafras fall color

We have a couple of these on the northern side of campus, and their distinctive leaves remind me of a dinosaur print. Ours on campus tend more towards yellow than red, but this tree is famous for its spiciness. It used to be an active ingredient in root beer—though it shouldn’t be confused with sarsaparilla— and its spice also plays a role in Cajun cuisine.

Its spicy flavor made it a popular export from early America, and you can still smell (or taste, if you dare) the spiciness by crushing the leaves. If you’re feeling particularly bold—and you have access to your own sassafras tree— try these recipes for sassafras jelly, candy, or tea. You will commonly find Papilio Troilus caterpillars on this leaf in the spring, which gives the butterfly part of its common name: a spicebush swallowtail.

spicebush swallowtail caterpillar
Keep an eye out for these caterpillars on the Sassafras tree.
The spicebush swallowtail after its metamorphosis.


sumac fall folor

One lower-school Natural History teacher commented to me that this was a “weed tree” but added immediately afterward that it looks beautiful in the fall. These trees can grow almost anywhere. I see one on my way to work growing between two Jersey walls on the freeway. I’m excited to catch its color change over the next few weeks. The beauty of keeping these trees around is the vibrant red splash they bring. In addition to the leaves, they produce berries in the fall which the intrepid forager can use to make “sumac-ade,” delicious, apparently, given enough sweetener.


hickory fall color

When early fall is rainy, the colors are a bit more vibrant. The hickory stands out as an early changer with its bright yellow, narrow leaves in groups of six. You may know hickory already, though, if you seek high-quality firewood for heating a room or smoking meat. It’s prized for its energy density when burned and enhances the room with its savory smell. Its wood was prized for making everything from baseball bats to ax handles and it can still be relied on to do those jobs even as it’s been replaced by manmade materials. Andrew Jackson earned the nickname “Old Hickory” because of his toughness.

Hickory nuts also fall in yards throughout the country, providing free natural toys to children who are still allowed to play outside. Mixed with acorns and beechnuts, hickory nuts often become a currency at my house when they’re not being used to construct a town or just collected in a bucket. While my kids may compete with the squirrels in nut gathering, some preppers also affirm that it’s a calorie-dense food abundantly available for about a month each year.


From the Senses to the Intellect

These observations may at first strike us as trivial minutiae, but I offer them because knowledge is different than information. Information is inert. It can be encoded or stored in a variety of formats. Knowledge is relational. There must be a personal knower and a thing (or person) known. This means that the more connections we make between mere information, the more easily it fits in our heads as knowledge. But because knowledge is relational, it isn’t suited only for our heads. The most important knowledge changes us, sometimes slightly by altering perspective or nudging our will towards better habits. Sometimes more profoundly, though that usually takes more time. Hopefully, this article offers a bit more perspective on what to look for and how to see.

If you are intrigued by our approach to Natural History, check out our past posts and podcasts on:

About the Author

Tom Cox

Chief Editor

Tom Cox teaches Latin and Greek in the Upper School at The Heights, where he has taught since 2009. Having earned his B.A. in Classics at Hillsdale, he completed a Master’s Degree in 2019 in the Liberal Arts from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD.

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