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Yellow sights along the Pine Creek Rail Trail

PHOTO PROVIDED Most the of the Pine Creek Rail Trail is covered with towering trees, the open sections can give an excellent glimpse of autumn colors on the mountainsides.

(Editor’s Note: This article is the eighth and final in a series exploring plants and horticulture within driving distance of central Pennsylvania.)

On the bright side, we are only days away from the winter solstice where the nights will shorten and the days grow longer. Unfortunately, we will have to muddle through the next few months of not only weather issues (still need to deal with cold and precipitation events) but the pandemic. Planning for some adventures and vacation time might help relieve some stress and anxiety.

While autumn of 2021 is a way off, the Pine Creek Rail Trail offers some excellent plant viewing opportunities. At this point in the season, flowering plants are few, especially along the trail. Goldenrod and asters can be seen in open areas that receive some sun. But for most of the trail, which is shady, you have to look for different offerings.

Of course, one of the big draws in central Pennsylvania during September and October are the colors of yellow, orange, and red that adorn the mountainsides and valley floors. There are a lot of factors involved beyond just the tree species. Temperatures and light intensity also have a say in the range of colors that show on the leaves. This year, it appeared that the yellows ruled.

In a previous column, I talked about the early spring flowering spicebush (Lindera benzoin). But this is a native shrub that is considered a multi-season plant. Come fall, the light green leaves turn gold yellow. For those located in more sunny, open areas, there is more branching and a tighter structure. This will give the appearance of a more intense fall color than those in shadier locations (grow scragglier). This is a great native plant for our yards. Check it out on the trail if interested.

Leaves carpet Pine Creek Rail trail. Pine Creek can easily be seen once all the leaves drop on creek banks.

Another native worth mentioning are the hickories. There are several species that grow in Pennsylvania but are not as well suited for our landscapes (very difficult to transplant). During my travels along the trail, I find it one of the earliest tree species to turn yellow.

While I am no fan of invasive plants, they are a fact of life in our region and for the most part, we just have to learn to deal with them. The Pine Creek Rail Trail has plenty of examples. The one that catches my attention in the fall is the Norway maple (Acer platanoides). Introduced into the US in the mid-1700s as an ornamental, it has spread far and wide — city lots to woodlands.

Once cooler temperatures occur, the leaves develop an excellent yellow color. At certain sections, Norway maple stands overhang the trail and can stand out a good distance along the trail with their brilliant color display.

But I feel the coolest aspect on biking/walking on the trail is when the leaves start to drop in large quantities. As the season progresses, the leaves carpet the pathway to where it feels like you are biking in a tree canopy. This is most profound where the oaks and sycamores predominate. These lay down big leaves that don’t seem to decay or blow away as much as other tree species.

I hope this series gave you some get-away ideas for next year. From the beauty of managed gardens (Innisfree, Oct. 31 column) to the Finger Lakes region (Nov. 7, 14, 21, 28) to our own backyard along Pine Creek Rail Trail (Dec. 5 and 12). These are just examples as the plant world is huge. Just about anywhere you go, they are there. Take time to smell the roses!

While Norway maples can be invasive in our naturalized settings, they can provide some intense yellow fall color.

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Tom Butzler is a horticulture educator with the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension Service and may be reached at 570-726-0022.

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