(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 9, 2007)
Swamp maples are among the first to bare their true colors.
With the first hint of cool weather, the leaves on these low-lying trees begin to unpeel their verdant masks. Uniform green transforms into red, gold and yellow. The makeover is gradual but steady. Before long, familiar tones are displaced by a multihued mosaic, and I find myself wondering, "What month is this, anyway?"
I love autumn -- even when it waits until December to arrive.
Every year about this time, I get my fix of autumnal foliage. I know that Florida isn't Vermont and that seasonal changes in the Sunshine State are far subtler than they are in New England, but that doesn't make them any less special. A colorful collage awaits my applause around every corner.
"Good job! Well done," I silently exclaim after passing a particularly rousing display on the edge of a wetland.
After a hot, dry summer, I have an unfathomable thirst for any splash of color.
From sycamores with their brittle brown-paper leaves to golden rain trees and cassia bushes, December presents a veritable palette of botanical pleasure. There's even a hint of harvest ahead as oranges ripen, loquats flower and great mounds of acorns crunch underfoot.
Autumn has arrived, but its entry is gentle. It catches you by surprise.
I'm used to understated autumns, though. When I lived on Cape Cod, fall was a muted occasion. Marsh grass faded to a dull gold. Leaves turned colors, but soft yellows, shy oranges and dusty browns predominated. The shocking scarlets and ruby reds associated with a New England leaf-fall are not the norm in coastal climes.
Florida is similar to Cape Cod in that way. Autumn arrives like an afterthought.
"I'm here. I'm finally here," it seems to say with a blush of apology.
But an apology isn't necessary. Every tinted leaf is a welcome addition to the visual landscape. No matter how late in the year it arrives, the magic of the moment is always stunning.
Of course, we all know that the changing of leaf colors is not really magic but a biological process dependent upon a green pigment called chlorophyll, a process called photosynthesis and the right proportion of sunlight, moisture and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Leaves are mini-food factories converting sunlight, rain and CO2 into a nutritious substance called glucose. Plants use the glucose -- a type of sugar -- to grow and prosper. In nature's omnipotent wisdom, more glucose is converted during times of extreme sunlight than can actually be used. The excess is stored. When the days grow shorter and sunlight is less available, plants enter conservation mode. In response to the winding down of food production, the chlorophyll-rich pigmentation in leaves diminishes. As it does, oranges and yellows -- colors the chlorophyll had been masking with its heavily green overtones -- begin to appear.
When we look at the orange leaves on a maple tree in autumn, what we're really seeing are the tree's true colors.
I wonder if that's how it works with people too. Are we one color on the outside, another within? Are there brilliant streaks of russet, orange or bright yellow hiding beneath our surfaces too? If so, when will they appear?
When I take a drive and pass a particularly brilliant display of leaves, I absorb what I can of the autumnal beauty. Like the trees, I store the excess in a special reserve to be tapped on days when a bit of sweetness is needed to brighten my mood.
Autumn in December. It's like getting a gift at the end of the year, an unexpected gift full of surprise and beauty.