Seeing beauty through the weeds

It is a classic lesson. When life throws you lemons, you need to find a way to make lemonade.

I've been suffering from a bad back for the past few months, which is most inopportune when you garden for a living. I am not allowed to weed, dig, rake or hoe, so my options are severely limited.

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After the injury first happened, I couldn't walk through my garden without thinking how messy it looked, or about all the jobs that needed to be done, things to be cut back, pulled out, the list was long. Friends would drop by and tell me how lovely the garden was looking and all I could see was the gigantic weeds in my stone path.

I've spent a lot of time laying on my couch and staring out onto the front garden. Slowly I started to come to terms with the idea that gardens are forgiving and all the things I wanted to do could surely wait until spring. It was then I really saw the garden and the amazing fall we are enjoying in Squamish this year.

My acer griseum is a perfect example. The acer griseum, or paperbark maple as it is commonly referred to, is a lovely ornamental maple for the small garden. Usually grown for its unusual peeling bark with green leaves throughout the growing season, it is an incredible surprise in fall.

One morning, seemingly out of nowhere, my son spied a leaf that had turned scarlet red. A few days later we find another, and then another, until eventually large swaths are completely red. Soon it will be ablaze with colour and I am glad I wasn't too busy to enjoy the show.

It is an incredible metamorphosis that never seems to delight us even though we know that this parade of colour represents the start of a bare winter. If you ever wondered why the leaves turn colour, the science is actually quite cool.

The last stage of life for a leaf involves four groups of pigments. We probably all remember chlorophyll, the chemical that keeps leaves green and does the lion's share of the work through summer. Carotenoids give us leaves with the classic yellow and orange colouring, and tannins produce russets and browns. The superstar is the anthocyanin, which produces the classic autumn shades of red and purple.

Throughout the growing season, chlorophyll is prominent. It is continually being created to replace what's taken out of the leaves by ultraviolet light, and the leaf stays green. Each species of tree has a predetermined pigment that is there all along, hidden by the green chlorophyll. In the fall, the chlorophyll production begins to wane and then completely stop, and then we see the yellows, oranges and browns take over.

The red comes from anthocyanin and is controlled by genetics. Some trees can get red and some cannot. Anthocyanin is different from carotenoids because it is not present in the growing season, but gets produced in the leaves by the correct fall weather conditions.

This is where we have hit the jackpot this year in Squamish. Our fall has provided close to perfect growing conditions necessary to create the environmental factors that produce the riotous show we are enjoying. All those clear, warm days with cool nights are the secret to beautiful leaf colour.

I hope you have time to get out and enjoy the fall colours around us and perhaps have a glass of lemonade.

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@ Copyright Squamish Chief

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