Here we are, on the cusp of November. In the Catskills our leaves are long gone. The lurid striped maples and flaming ash last only a week or two up against mountain winds and cold nights that get colder quickly. Gaze out across a barren hillside and you will still see a colorful thing or two, though. Buried beneath a canopy of grey limbs there’s bronze fire still smoldering in the undergrowth: beech sprouts; and here and there a head of russet color: the oaks. These two hangers-on actually belong to the same family, the Fagaceae, and therefore have a bit in common.
Both genera (Fagus and Quercus, respectively) have their origins in the tropics- that steamy band of habitat that traverses the earth’s midsection, and bears no resemblance to the Catskills. In the tropics, there’s no Autumn. In the tropics, trees are evergreen. It has been proposed that the ancestors of our oak and beech had tougher, thicker tissue where the leaf joined the stem, ensuring these evergreen leaves would stay put for a couple of years of photosynthesizing. When the short season of summer finishes here in our mountains, the leaves of these two trees think nothing of it, and keep on keeping on.
The scientific term for this is marcesence, and there are some other possible benefits to it for our mountain dwellers. First of all, leaves that persist longer (and indeed, some beech and oak hold their leaves all through the winter) may give some protection to cold-tender buds. Secondly, in the highly competitive race for nutrients, trees that can retain their leaves just a couple of weeks longer come out with the lion’s share of food storage for the long, cold season ahead.