While We Weren’t Looking

It was little more than a hunch, but I sensed a change. The wind had been brisk, the temperature change sharp, and the nights cool enough to require jackets. It might have happened, I thought.

And so it had. From refuges to farms, across windbreaks and fencelines, color had come: wild, exuberant, and as glorious as in any remembered autumn.

Unfortunately, the color was gracing the despised and denigrated, cursed and criticized abomination known as the Chinese tallow tree. As ubiquitous an invasive as can be found, it creeps across prairies and sneaks toward woodlands,  displacing native grasses and forbs as it goes.

Still. For a very few days in autumn, its colors — yellow and taupe, pumpkin-rich orange, burgundy, the almost unearthly saturated red shown above — arrive to gladden the heart. Today, the weekend’s color surely is gone, thanks to the winds of our first strong cold front. But I was there to see it and, seeing it, to remember Emily Dickinson’s own paean to the colors of autumn.

The name of it is “Autumn”
The hue of it is Blood
An Artery upon the Hill
A Vein along the Road
Great Globules in the Alleys
And Oh, the Shower of Stain
When Winds upset the Basin
And spill the Scarlet Rain
It sprinkles Bonnets far below
It gathers ruddy Pools
Then eddies like a Rose away
Upon Vermilion Wheels


Comments always are welcome.

76 thoughts on “While We Weren’t Looking

  1. It is over for us. 10 cm of snow and minus eleven degrees. Yesterday we dressed for the weather and went for a long walk in bright sunshine, with crisp, clean air. Glorious.

    1. I remember those days, especially the way the snow would squeak on especially cold days, or gleam in the moonlight. Every season has its beauties — especially if we’re dressed properly!

    1. We take our color where we find it, don’t we? I was a little disappointed in our crepe myrtles this year; they dropped their leaves without the beautiful oranges and yellows they can produce. I haven’t decided yet whether the cypress are going to turn. It may be they’ve been waiting for this really cold weather to do their thing.

  2. When I start whining about that first 100 degree day of summer, or that first blast of below freezing wind of autumn, I simply read a phrase that I have written across my computer screen: “I woke up this morning, and that’s more than some people did…the REST IS UP TO ME.” That’s when I put on a coat and go outside and smile.

    1. Exactly. Out on the docks, everyone whines, but everyone’s out on the docks, nonetheless. The whining’s a way of bonding, and besides — there’s no argument where to set the office thermostat!

  3. The colour on that tree is fabulous, Linda. I have to admit that I can’t entirely understand the need to only have indigenous plants on this planet of ours – don’t they belong to the whole planet? If we treated people like that… not good.

    1. ‘Indigenous’ isn’t a word I’ve heard applied to plants, although I did find it here and there in the literature when I looked. ‘Native,’ ‘non-native,’ ‘endemic,’ and ‘invasive’ are more common and have specific meanings — as does ‘noxious,’ which is the designation for plants that are introduced, non-native, and particularly destructive to the environment. Many of our invasives have come from Europe or Asia, while many of our native plants have been introduced elsewhere and become problematic.

      One of the best examples of a troublesome invasive is the beautiful, non-native water hyacinth that was introduced into ponds here because of its beauty. It’s a native of the Amazon basin, but it wreaks havoc on our waterways by creating dense vegetative mats that block sunlight from open water. This drastically reduces the amount of native algae and plankton in the water, which in turn reduces the food supply for native fish and wildlife. When the dead plant material constantly being generated by water hyacinths is broken down by bacteria and fungi, they consume most of the oxygen in the water, leaving none for fish, water bugs or other aquatic animals.

      The same thing is true for birds, insects, and animals, of course. Texas is being threatened by zebra mussels and feral hogs, and finding ways to combat their negative effects on the environment is a real issue.

      Of course every plant or animal has its place in this world of ours — but we need to honor them by allowing them to thrive in ‘their places,’ rather than letting our admiration for them put them in direct (and often successful) competition with our own native flora and fauna.

      1. ‘Indigenous’ simply means belonging to a place and not brought in from outside, it’s applicable to anything, whether living or not. Here you’ll see the English and American definitions and, actually, the American (as in ‘grown’) is closer to what I meant: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/indigenous

        In the UK, we also have invasive plants that were introduced from abroad. One extreme example of that is Japanese Knotweed. https://www.phsgreenleaf.co.uk/how-to-identify-treat-and-stop-japanese-knotweed-spreading-in-your-garden/

        I’m not against the control of invasive plants, but I am against stopping them growing at all. Some examples are certain varieties of rhododendrons, https://insideecology.com/2017/09/06/invasive-non-native-species-uk-rhododendron-ponticum/ beautiful shrubs that were brought here in the 18th century (as were many others). Here’s what rhododendrons do that’s positive: they encourage bees and butterflies. Those same bees and butterflies that are dying out. This is also what Cotoneaster does, many varieties of which https://insideecology.com/2017/10/04/invasive-non-native-species-uk-cotoneaster/ are also apparently ‘invasive’ non-indigenous plants here.

        My point is that all plants should be allowed to grow wherever they take root providing they can perform some positivity in the area. If they don’t contribute in ANY way, then fine – get rid of them, but so many of these plants are actually performing a service that is overlooked: they’re helping to keep our bee and butterfly population alive. If they are interfering with that, then they need moving to somewhere where they can live in peace without negative effects.

        In our garden (yard) here, we’ve a lot of cotoneasters, rhododendrons, and probably others that would be frowned upon… and you know what? We’ve also got the largest number of bees, butterflies and moths that I’ve ever seen in my life, and we’ve also got a large number of the protected birds that are dying out in other parts of the UK. A few miles away there is a nature reserve and I didn’t see one butterfly, one bee or one moth up there. Nor birds or any other wild things. A large pond, some wild plants and that’s about it. And where I came from, in Southern England (I’m now in rural Wales) there was little wildlife.

        So, if there are any plants that are decimating the natural population of anything, they need thinning or possibly moving, but surely not destroying completely?

        I’m very, VERY pro-nature. Surely you remember my past blogs with all the photos of wildlife, birds, plants, etc?

        The last part of my first comment was meant to be ironic. I am a Brit, after all…

        1. Well, it seems we’ve fallen down a linguistic rabbit hole, Val. Whether a plant’s considered indigenous or native seems to depend on who’s writing about it. I found plenty of examples of both terms, although I never heard anyone here refer to indigenous plants. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, of course.

          Endemic is a little more clear-cut. Endemic species are unique to a defined geographic location, such as an island, state, or ecoregion.

          There certainly is a place in gardens and landscapes for introduced plants; most of the gardeners I know combine native plants, introduced plants, and cultivars, and for the reasons you’ve suggested. One example that comes to mind is Brazilian vervain. It’s everywhere in the refuges now; it’s a non-native, introduced plant that’s become naturalized, and it’s a magnet for bees, butterflies, and various other insects. Still, there are studies showing that the nutritive value of non-native plants isn’t always equal to that of natives, even when they attract the critters that feed on them. It’s a complicated subject, well beyond my expertise, but it’s a subject that deserves attention.

          In the case of our worst invasives, there’s little likelihood that we’ll ever root them out entirely, but it’s important to make the effort. Up in Council Grove, Kansas, surrounded by native prairies, they take those noxious weeds seriously!

            1. I just had a look, I wonder why it’s so many of the red-coloured plants (leaves/blooms) that are invasive and/or noxious? And I see that we have that for sale in many plant nurseries in the UK, but can’t see any warning about it here. Strange, but interesting.

            2. It is interesting that the ‘burning bush’ is acceptable in some places but not in others. In one recent presentation, the speaker noted that when a plant is in its native environment, other forces (insects, disease, competition from other plants) help to keep the balance. One it’s moved to a different environment, those natural curbs aren’t available, and the spread begins.

      1. Thank you for your reply to my comment (I think it was to mine?), Misti. I understand the point of view in the blog post you linked to, but it’s not what I meant. Please read what I’ve just said in reply to Linda’s (Shoreacres’) comment, as it might help.

  4. Tallow lines our pond shorelines. It always looks great in the fall but every other time of year—ughhhh. We had to have a hickory taken down this summer and I couldn’t believe how quickly tallow saplings sprung up. I removed them but they were fast to germinate when conditions ripened.

    I wish Texas addressed invasives like Florida does. The tallow around Houston is getting out of hand.

    1. Armand Bayou and the Dudney Nature Center in League City are in the midst of years-long processes to remove tallows and restore prairie. At Dudney, they’re taking on the trifoliate orange, too — thank goodness. It’s quite a commitment, but it’s going to be interesting to watch the progress. Take that, tallow!

    1. We do love it when we’re granted this kind of vision. I’ve come to appreciate our more subtle autumn colors, but I love these occasional bits of over-the-top color.

    1. I’m not sure it surpasses the euonymus under normal conditions, but I’ll grant that this one was at the height of Chinese tallow glory. As for its status as a pest, that’s putting it mildly. Yappy dogs can be pests: likewise that single fly in the kitchen, or the squirrel that’s defeated sixteen types of bird feeder baffles. Chinese tallow? In a contest between kudzu and the tallow tree, I’m betting on the tallow.

  5. Sounds like Scotch Broom, Linda. Lovely to look at but as invasive as invasive can be. Better than star thistle, however. As for Emily Dickinson’s poem, not quite your normal celebration of fall colors. We’ve just spent three weeks enjoying the gorgeous yellows of cottonwood. I suspect you have some in your area as well. –Curt

    1. I remember our conversation about thistles, and that one in particular. As unwelcome as the tallow trees are, at least they don’t inflict physical harm; apart from being prickly, I see they’re toxic for horses.

      Emily’s view of things can be idiosyncratic, but it’s just as often compelling. We talk about poorly dyed cloth ‘bleeding’ onto other items in the laundry; the thought of autumn bleeding its colors into the world is pretty interesting.

    1. I suppose every part of the world has its problems with invasives: this is one of ours. Still, when autumn comes and the colors are glorious, it’s hard not to admire them.

    1. All of the colors were beautiful, especially where they were backlighted. I wanted to try photographing this tree with the sun behind it, but I wasn’t willing to wade into the watery ditches or grasses surrounding it. I’d already seen snakes and alligators, and wasn’t eager for a closer confrontation.

  6. Sad that the Chinese tallow tree is so invasive — why it couldn’t have been an ugly color is a puzzle. After Googling it, I can see where you wouldn’t want it in your yard, but gee, its red sure does stand out!

    1. Part of our problem with the tree today is a result of so many people planting them in their yards before fully realizing how problematic they are. People who come here from the northeast or midwest miss their fall color, and the tallows seemed to be a perfect substitute. Not so much! Still, when the trees put on their show, I’ll admire them. I guess it’s the midwesterner that still lives inside me.

  7. I love that flame red, and the oxblood red that the oak trees next door and across the street turn. Unfortunately, I found Dickenson’s poem a little creepy as it reminded me of the practice that was common for all too long in the medical community of blood letting not only as a treatment of disease but as a preventative. They had large bowls specifically designed for it — “When wind upsets the basin.”

    Triadica sebifera is only one of the invaders from the orient. Add to its ranks Ailanthus altissima (the stinking “tree of heaven” from China) and Pueraria montana (the infamous kudzu from Japan).

    1. I never would have thought of that association. The ‘basin’ reminded me more of my birdbaths, or the plant saucers I leave lying around from time to time. In the same vein (no pun intended) we used to vacation at Leech Lake in Minnesota, so my up-close-and-personal experiences with leeches meant they didn’t seem creepy when I learned they were used for blood-letting.

      Surprisingly, everything old is new again, and new uses have been found for the creatures — they’re now approved by the FDA.

      The Japanese have provided a climbing fern, too, and the beautifully scented but troublesome Japanese honeysuckle. As for kudzu, that stuff is can be awe-inspiring when it really gets going.

  8. Despised it may be, but the colour is absolutely glorious. I can well imagine pockets of bright colour across the landscape.

    1. It was one of the prettiest weekends I’ve experienced in some time. The combination of colors was quite striking. I have another, quite different photo I’ll be sharing next, that has all the colors of the tallow rainbow as a background.

  9. Your words an equal to hers. The anticipation of the first paragraph, and that second one – outstanding.

    Tallows are just so beleaguered- so not their fault. After WWII during all the rapid building of houses, it was the builder’s landscape tree. Every house in Bellaire had at least 2 – came with the deal. People who relocated to the city then were thrilled because they missed the autumn colors of the East Coast so much.

    I always hate stepping on those darn sharp white Tallow berries! But kids love them for sling shot battles. (Oh, I know. You’ll shoot out your eye…but no one ever did)They aren’t sturdy trees – and do not do well in hurricanes. Dad kept ours cropped as he said they grew sprawly and too fast to be strong (we were not allowed to climb those- too prone to breaking). Each spring the trimmed Tallows looked like comical green poodle trees. Mom hated that. But those trees provided shade while the little oaks we planted grew big enough to take over. I think one still remained in the back yard some 30 years later when we sold the house

    1. At least the developers seem to have moved away from the tallows. Two trees and a hedge still might rule the subdivisions, but they’re using different trees. The Chinese tallow, of course, don’t care. They just send out the call to their friends and relatives, and eventually they show up despite careful human planning.

      Speaking of humans, there’s always something to learn. I didn’t know that Benjamin Franklin was the one who first brought the tree here, nor that it came to the Gulf coast to energize a nascent soap industry:
      “The Chinese tallow tree was introduced into the United States from China in 1776 by Ben Franklin… The common name comes from the waxy tallow derived from the white covering of the seed that has been used historically to make soap and candles. In the early 1900s, the Foreign Plant Introduction Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture promoted tallow tree planting in Gulf Coast states to establish a local soap industry.”

      There it is again: the law of unintended consequences.

  10. Ah! Flamboyance! A variety of acasia trees are menacingly invading my native place Kerala, badly affecting the ground water sources! What you said is so true each one should thrive in its place. That Dickinson one goes so well with your image and write up. Among her poems on seasons, I find this one a bit too stark!

    1. Every region has its difficulties with introduced and often badly-behaved plants. Of course, the plants are just doing what they’re meant to do — reproduce and spread their kind. Unfortunately, that spreading can cause every sort of problem.

      I was taken with the Dickinson poem in part because its imagery is so different from what I generally have read from her. Who knows? Perhaps that autumn flamboyance got her blood flowing, and this bit of verse was the result!

      1. Recently I have been facing some problems with my blog, Linda. Tried to fix the comment box issue in vain. So I changed the theme and hopefully the comment box is showing now! Thank you for the alert.

  11. For us in the land of the ‘never-never’, it is the orange-blood-red-burgundy-russet of the bush fires that are now overwhelming everything in its sight.
    Nothing it seems, will stop this terrible catastrophic event. And summer hasn’t even started.

    1. I’ve been watching your fires, and the attempts to cope with them. There are a couple of sites based here in the U.S. that do a fine job of reporting: Wildfire Today, and Fire Aviation. Of course you have far more information, and more timely, but these two sites are useful for those of us who’d like something other than photos of terrible destruction and hyperventilating headlines.

      I’ve read about the increasing threat to Sydney. Are you going to remain safe in Bowral?

      1. Sydney is a huge city in area and it all depends where one lives. Generally the outer fringes are less safe as they generally incorporate bush, trees etc. Bowral is surrounded by forests but the city itself is safe for the moment. Bush fires are very unpredictable and at the moment there is a threat of fires in Western Australia.

    1. I like to think her poem arose from an encounter with a similarly striking tree. Like you, I really like the poem, and I can’t help loving the tree in all its colors. It’s funny, really, that the tree’s aesthetic appeal has helped it to survive in its new environment.

        1. Ah, yes. Salt cedar’s quite common in and around Galveston Island, and the last time I was down there I saw that it was being cut back and uprooted in some places — mostly on the edges of preserves, where they certainly don’t want the plant encroaching.

  12. Whether I was exposed to it before and lost in memory or whether I saw this Dickinson ode to the blood red colors of Autumn for the first time just now, it is a fascinating choice of words for tribute. But, I guess in some parts of the country rivers of red do flow in the most beautiful sense in Fall. In places like Saipan their globules of red are not Autumn leaves but rather Flame Tree Blossoms that color the whole island crimson. Whenever and whatever, we certainly respond to such glory and even put up with raking either leaves or blossoms without complaint or even gather them up for photos.

    Here in Florida we settle for the rustle of green palms that make music in the breezes of Fall.

    1. It’s an usual poem for Dickinson, or so it seems to me. Perhaps it’s because it’s so direct, and dramatic. She often seems to be hiding behind her words, or hiding her meaning. Here, that’s not so true.

      We had the flame tree in Liberia, too. They weren’t common, and now that I think of it I suspect they might have been introduced there, but they were glorious. There was a purple flowering tree as well. I remember it being called the queen flower tree, but I have no idea what it was, and can’t find any articles or images. It may even have been a jacaranda, introduced from South Africa.

      No matter the color, they certainly do stir the soul. And, honestly? I miss raking leaves in autumn!

  13. Wow, that’s as brilliantly red as any foliage we have here in New England. Similarly, we have the invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus) that spreads like the wildfire its coloration suggests.

    1. Rob mentioned the ‘burning bush,’ and I looked at some photos of it (beautiful!) but he didn’t mention and I didn’t realize it’s invasive. When I took another look, I found the equivalent of flashing warning lights on the Missouri Botanical Garden site — and an example of the use of the word ‘noxious’ that I was telling Val about.

      1. There are many attractive yet “noxious” and invasive species creeping around in our botanical world. Another we have here is Oriental Bittersweet. It is, as Eliza Waters mentioned on my blog a bit ago, a “thug”. Climbing all over anything it comes across and often strangling it. You saw it here and commented. I felt the same about Burning Bush when I first saw it then discovered its invasiveness.

        1. I recently washed off the artificial bittersweet I mentioned that’s been ‘living’ atop my refrigerator. After your post, a friend came home from Iowa with some native bittersweet, and I rather envied it. Now? Mine certainly looks better than hers.

            1. I’d never heard of Plastic Flowers, so I looked them up, and found this: “Plastic Flowers is George Samaras, a dream pop musician based in London, UK. His music traverses the wider spectre of pop, with heavy influences from genres such as Shoegaze and Vaporwave.”

              I’m older and more out of touch than I thought.

  14. Very nice photo and yes it is a very pretty tree in the fall. I did not know that it was an invasive tree since it does not spread very much in my area. Until a few years ago there was a giant of a tree on one of the major streets in my neighborhood. It finally met its fate about five or so years ago. I still miss that tree because I looked forward to seeing its beauty each time I drove past on my way home.

    1. Funny, how particular trees can become so important to us. They’re landmarks, bits of beauty, reminders of history, friends. When our town united to save the Ghirardi oak, all of that was in play. The video is two years old, so it’s been seven years (!!) now since that wonderful experience, and the tree still is thriving.

  15. This reminds me of another invasive plant that has fantastic fall color: Euonomous alatus, also known as Burning Bush. I have one because Judy won’t let me take it down. They are still widely sold, despite the damage they do.

    1. Readers from Massachusetts and New York mentioned that ‘burning bush,’ too. When I looked it up on the Missouri Botanical Garden page, there were warnings about it in bold red text. I almost expected to hear sirens going off. Both are beautiful — using their charms to insinuate themselves into gardens and landscapes.

    1. The variety of colors they can produce ranges through every shade of yellow, orange, and red, depending on the conditions. Some years they’re not at all colorful, but this year they outdid themselves — and we all enjoyed it.

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