Fiery Fall Foliage

Fiery Fall Foliage

First Week in November

The Chicago area landscape was formed by ice.  As the Wisconsin glacier receded about 13,000 years ago, it deposited glacial till it had collected when it moved forward—boulders, stones, gravel, sand, and clay particles—and built overlapping moraines.  The material dropped out unevenly thereby creating rolling hills, ridges, and kames.  Where huge blocks of ice broke off from the glacier and melted, kettleholes were formed that became marshes, ponds, and lakes. (Jerry Sullivan, Chicago Wilderness, An Atlas of Biodiversity)
Burnidge Forest Preserve on the western border of the town where I live is one such area.   An oak savanna that contains five species of oak–Bur Oak, White Oak, Black Oak, Red Oak, and Scarlet Oak–plus Shagbark Hickory grows throughout the rolling sandy hills, which slope down to three kettleholes.

The leaves of Bur Oak and Black Oak turn from green to crispy brown, but the White Oak, Red Oak, and Scarlet Oak turn to rich carmine and scarlet.

White Oak cluster at BFP

Entrance to Burnidge Forest Preserve–pond on the right.


Oak and Sumac BFP

A few magnificent Bur Oak and Shagbark Hickory followed the trail up the first hill.   Smooth Sumac flamed along the edges.   As I descended the slope on the other side of the hill, Scarlet, Red, and Black Oak came into view.

I crossed a road and then climbed another, steeper mound.  Similar oaks covered the hill, mostly smaller White Oak, glorious in vivid carmine dress.

kettle Nov These rolling hills surrounded two kettleholes, a heart-stopping view.

top kettle

Continuing to the top of the hill, I overlooked another kettlehole, larger than the first two.  Stands of Indian Grass and Little Blue Stem grew abundantly along with Showy Goldenrod in this open, sunny area.



fall foliage white oak BFP

Turning to the left, I followed another path down a slope mostly populated by White Oak.  Both White Oak and Bur Oak are massive, wide-spreading, majestic trees at maturity.   Bur Oak is common in  savannas and woodland edges.  While White Oak is still common in woodlands, Dick Young says in Kane County Wild Plants and Natural Areas that is only reproducing in a few locations.  One such place is Burnidge Forest Preserve where we are now.

1 young white oak redBroader than tall when mature, White Oak has a symmetrical, oblong, somewhat pyramidal crown when young, that concentrates its scarlet leaves like a flame.   The leaves are round-lobed with deep sinuses almost to the rib.  They tend to persist on the tree over winter, particularly on its lower half.  A quick identification of White Oak is its ashy gray bark.  I have noticed that In the wild it is most often found on hillsides, suggesting that it likes to grow in dry or dry-mesic situations.

Impossible to transplant beyond the seedling stage, it grows readily from acorns.  When Jens Jensen designed the Lincoln Memorial Garden in Springfield, IL,  school children were called upon to collect acorns, which were then planted by local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in a grand ceremony in 1936.

“I planted white acorns…  The white oak is the noblest tree in Illinois.  It will live to be a thousand years old on soil best fitted for it.”

Jens Jensen

as quoted by Robert E. Grese in his book,  Jens Jensen.

Red Oak BFP fall

Although the leaf color of Red Oak (Quercus rubra) is equally intense, the tree itself has a completely different look.  Its branch structure is looser and sometimes asymmetrical.  Its pointed-lobed leaves unfold reddish in spring, become shiny dark green in summer, turn to scarlet in fall, and finally change to russet brown and persist for most of the winter.  Easy to transplant, it grows fast at a rate of 2’ per year to an ultimate height of 60’ to 75’ with a spead of 40-50’.  Shade tolerant, it will grow with only a few hours of sun per day.

scarlet oak fall foilage BFP

Turning around, I followed the path in the other direction.  Scarlet or Hill’s Oak flourished to the left of the path.  Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) and Hill’s Oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis) were considered to be two different species until the last 15 or so years, but now are thought to be one and the same.  Scarlet Oak was introduced in 1691, while Hill’s Oak, also known as Northern Pin Oak,  was not discovered until the 1920’s by E. J. Hill.  Scarlet Oak appears to be a tree of the East, while Hill’s Oak is common in the upper Midwest.

Hill's Oak

It closely resembles Pin Oak (Quercus palustris).  Pin Oak, however, requires an acid, moist soil that is not found in the Midwest.  But Hill’s/Scarlet Oak is an upland tree that grows well in dry, sandy, gravelly, or rocky soils.  Unfortunately, it’s not readily available in commerce.

One more thing:

black Haw in bfp

Do you know what this is?  No, it’s not the alien Burning Bush, which has become invasive in our Forest Preserves.  It’s Black Haw (Viburnum prunifolium), a lovely native small tree or large shrub that grows 15’ high and 8-12’ wide. It has interest in all 4 seasons: white blossoms in spring, rose berries, turning to black in September, and gorgeous scarlet to burgundy foliage in the fall, rivaling any Burning Bush.  Its horizontal branching pattern is notable in winter and gives it the look of a hawthorn: hence the common name.  And as a bonus, it reproduces itself by underground stoloniferous rhizomes and becomes a  thicket.  Or one can transplant the new plants to other places in  ones own garden or dig to share with others.  In nature, it is found in moist woods, or conversely in upland savannas and woodland edges; in the home landscape, it adapts to full or part sun.  Plant it in the border or within a woodland, or use it as a specimen or focal point.  It’s readily available from nurseries.

Black Haw fall foliage

My Black Haw.

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25 Responses to Fiery Fall Foliage

  1. chris darbo November 6, 2014 at 9:13 am #

    Fall is SO beautiful! Thanks for those lovely images. I can almost smell them! I’m going to include in our website and catalog the recommendation of using Viburnum prunifolium instead of the invasive and fuschia-colored (ugh)Euonymus ‘Compactus’.
    I love Dick’s use of the word “Shirley”! He always makes me smile!

    • Pat Hill November 6, 2014 at 10:00 am #

      That’s great, Chris. Midwest Groundcovers is a leader in our area that supplies native plants:trees, shrubs, grasses, forbs, and groundcovers. Labeling Blackhaw Viburnum as a great substitute for Burning Bush will be highly effective.

      I have a PowerPoint program entitled Native Plants for Fall Color:Beyond Burning Bushes and Chrysanthemums. In it I show how ubiquitous Burning Bushes are in our landscapes and then point out native shrubs with equal or better scarlet fall color.

    • Pat Hill November 6, 2014 at 11:13 am #

      Shirley instead of surely was totally my error, not Dick’s.

  2. Shirley Pflederer November 6, 2014 at 9:39 am #

    Love our forest preserves. Preserving our natural areas is important. Equally important is restoration. Your yard is a top example of restoration.

    Northern Kane Wild Ones is hosting Paddy Woodworth tonite at ELgin Community College. He has been documenting restoration efforts all over the globe for the past 10 years, beginning with the reintroduction of the Whooping Crane. Seats are still available. Visit for details.

    • Pat Hill November 6, 2014 at 10:47 am #

      So glad you mentioned this Shirley. The Midwest and in particular the Chicago region has been a leader in ecological restoration. Paddy Woodworth reports extensively on our area. All of you who live in the Chicago region will find it extremely interesting and relevant. Mr. Woodworth is an inspired and charming speaker. I heard him on U-Tube and was blown away. Believe me, you will not be bored with this speaker–I foresee a standing ovation.

  3. Pat Hill November 6, 2014 at 11:11 am #

    From Jack Shouba:

    Hi Pat,

    First, a typo in your introduction: I checked three editions of Dick Young’s book, and he does say “surely”, not “shirley”. Reminds me of the lines in the movie “Airplane”: “Surely you can’t be serious.” I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley.” Dick’s book is loaded with typos, so it would not have surprised me, but this is not one of them. (I did some proofreading of the current edition, but they were in a hurry to get it published and I was not able to complete the job.)

    Shirley instead of surely was totally my error. Pat

    Second, it was easier on us amateur botanists when scarlet an Hill’s oak were put in the same species, but Andrew Hipp of the Morton Arboretum has done a study of the matter and concludes that they are separate species, with most of the Chicago area trees being Hill’s (scarlet is farther east). You might enjoy this article:

    I did enjoy it–thank you for sending it to me. Pat

    Terry and I always enjoy your blog. Might have to plant some black haw after reading this one.

    Trying to grow some native shrubs at Corron Farm, but someone mowed down the wild plum and a large hazelnut. I expect the hazel will come back, but I don’t know about the plum.


  4. Mary Alice Masonick November 6, 2014 at 12:55 pm #

    I noticed the “shirley”, too, and would have accepted it as Dick’s or yours, Pat! Creative license.

    I had planned to point out the absence of Hill’s Oak on your list, as I know where there are some at Burnidge. Then, I read on to learn that Scarlet and Hill’s are considered the same. Thank you, Pat.

    Do you know the line from the “Know Your Oaks” song: “…and Hill’s untidy below”?

    • Pat Hill November 6, 2014 at 1:17 pm #

      No, I don’t know the “Know Your Oaks Song. It did not appear on your message. Looking forward to it though.

      • Mary Alice Masonick November 6, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

        I’ll have to sing it for you. 😉

        • PatHill November 6, 2014 at 2:58 pm #

          Next Wild Ones meeting?

  5. Al Troyka November 6, 2014 at 12:58 pm #

    I was born and raised in Berwyn until my family moved to Tupelo, MS, in 1955 when I was16. We lived within walking distance of a forest preserve, and I will never forget the wonder and beauty of it and the many hours I spent exploring it with my childhood buddies. It took a lot of foresight and determination of those generations before me to keep the preserves intact for the past 100 years in the face of massive urban development.

    • Pat Hill November 6, 2014 at 1:34 pm #

      I lived quite close to a Forest Preserve most of my married life and went there frequetly. My children could follow the small creek that started behind our house and follow it into the fForest Preserve.

  6. Pat Hill November 6, 2014 at 1:12 pm #

    See Jack Shouba’s remarks re Hill’s and Scarlet Oak above. It seems they are now considered two separate species again.

  7. chris darbo November 6, 2014 at 2:14 pm #

    I learned the Know Your Oaks song in a class taught by May Theilgaard Watts at the Arboretum that my Dad and I took together when I was a child. That was so long ago that I’ve forgotten it. I hope Mary Alice remembers and shares.

    • PatHill November 6, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

      We’re waiting, Mary Alice.

    • PatHill November 6, 2014 at 2:32 pm #

      I’m really impressed that you met May Theilgaard Watts. That makes you a celebrity!

  8. chris darbo November 6, 2014 at 2:41 pm #

    Hardly a celebrity! But she did set me on a path.

    • PatHill November 6, 2014 at 2:56 pm #

      Interesting! That would make a fun piece-how did one become interested in gardening? Stayed tuned.

  9. Jack Shouba November 6, 2014 at 2:57 pm #

    Find the oak song here, with drawings:

    I teach tree classes at the Morton Arboretum where May Watts taught, though I never met her. We sing the song in my adult classes and others sing it in children’s classes. I researched the song at the library and found it in an Arboretum Bulletin from 1942, if I remember correctly. The last line was “And Hill’s untidy below” (arms out, bent down at elbows, hand flexed, indicating the dead lower branches of Hill’s oak). Newer versions replace the Hill’s oak line with one about “acorns down below”.

    • PatHill November 6, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

      Thank you, Jack!

      What a great song and what a great lesson plan! Mighty Oaks teachers–have you heard this? Teachers everywhere–?

      i do so love it when we get a conversation going here.

  10. Mary Alice Masonick November 6, 2014 at 3:04 pm #

    Okay, here’s the song as I learned it in a Forest Preserves As Classrooms course offered by Valerie Blaine in 2000. You’ll have to provide the musical accompaniment. The melody is from “Row, Row, Row Your Boat…”. There are arm positions indicating the growth habit of each oak.

    “Know, know, know your oaks,
    This is how they grow:
    Red oak, White Oak, Bur Oak, Pin Oak,
    And Hill’s untidy below.”

    • PatHill November 6, 2014 at 3:11 pm #

      Thank you both and thank you, Valerie–what fun!

      Learning about nature can be fun.

  11. chris darbo November 6, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    Thank you Mary Alice! And Jack! I have been trying to remember that for years! You’ve brought back such nice memories of time with my Dad!

  12. Suzanne Massion November 8, 2014 at 8:00 pm #

    I love it too when there’s a lot of back and forth conversation. Pat, this one was a lot of fun to read with so much info on oaks (including the song). The beautiful Black Haw continues to be elusive in our savannah. I think we need to plant some. We continue to treasure the huge White Oak at the northern edge of our property and watch for white oak saplings. The Red Oaks grow so much faster, I hope we’re right in favoring Burr and White when thinning out. As for typos, shirley you are not the only guilty party.

  13. Pat November 9, 2014 at 10:56 am #

    Wonderful post! I followed all the links in the comment section. Thankyou, Jack! I am envious of all who knew May Watts and Dick Young, however fleeting that may have been. Wish I could say the same. And now I even know the “oak song”!

    Thanks to all!

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