Growing up in Florida, plants consisted of flowers, palm trees, pine trees, and evergreen shrubs. There were two seasons—hot and hotter—but every building had air conditioning so most time was spent in a climate-controlled bubble.
So going to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania as an undergraduate brought with it a host of changes beyond the usual freshman adjustment period. There was no air conditioning, so summers were warm and humid with no escape. Winter would dump inches of snow on us and we were still expected to go to class (so much for those fabled snow days I had only ever heard about). Spring would be a riot of blossoms. And autumn? A profusion of colours that, for a few weeks at least, would turn ordinary leaves into jewels.
One day during my freshman year I was picking up some fallen leaves to press—family and friends in Florida always talked wistfully about autumn leaves and missing the change of seasons, so my plan was to send them a few. While I was choosing the most brightly coloured leaves, a friend stopped by to ask what I was doing, and the impression she gave was that leaf collecting was a little unusual. Indeed, I think she thought I had lost it.
So I explained to her what I was doing, and why. Her confusion turned to surprise. “Leaves don’t change colour in Florida? It’s green all year?!” It was a revelation: lack of seasonal variation was just as much a novelty to her as the changes were to me. Since moving to England, autumn at Westonbirt Arboretum is always one of the highlights of the year. I have, however, swapped collecting leaves for photographing them!
Besides the simple fact that there is a change of seasons in the UK compared to Florida, one of the things I have had to get used to is terminology. In the US, “fall” and “autumn” are used interchangeably, with the former being the most common. In the UK, however, autumn is the given name for the season.
Why the difference?
According to my good friend Google, “fall” was actually used in England up until the 17th century, and was short for “fall of the leaf” (which makes perfect sense since that is what tends to happen). It replaced “harvest” as the name for the period between summer and winter because more people were beginning to move into cities and the usual agricultural rhythm of the countryside started to be disrupted.
However, the British then decided to adopt “autumn” from the French “automne”. English settlers on the eastern seaboard of the US had brought the older phrase “fall” with them, so that remains in the States with other Old English words (spring, summer, winter), and the UK continues to use the slightly more modern “autumn”.
Ever wonder what makes autumn so spectacular?
Leaves contain the green pigment chlorophyll, which captures energy from the sun and turns it into food for the tree. However, the decreasing amount of daylight and cooler temperatures cause the chlorophyll to break down and allow the other pigments in the leaves—such as the yellow xanthophyll and orange carotenoids—to become visible. While this basic process is repeated year after year, the weather can affect the duration and intensity of the colour. The temperature, light, and amount of water the tree receives all have an impact. For example, low temperatures that stay above freezing will bring out the red of the anthocyanin pigment in maple trees, but an early frost can reduce the colour.
What will this year bring in terms of autumn colour?
I have a suspicion that it may be more muted than usual due to the stress of the summer’s heatwave, plus a few early autumn storms are already knocking the leaves from the trees. But please feel free to enjoy these photos from past years to help get you in an autumnal mood—pumpkin spice latte optional![ If you’re interested in seeing even more of autumn in the UK, check out this earlier blog post about visiting Westonbirt Arboretum. ]