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Hiking into the New Year in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

If you're welcome the new year with a walk in the woods, you're in for a treat. Hikers will notice that there is one deciduous tree that doesn’t lose its leaves during the winter months. In actuality, there are several, but in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest there is one common tree that catches your eye. You may hear them at first. A dry rustling sound when the wind blows. Then you will admire the gorgeous bronze of their leaves, still hanging on the tree after all the other deciduous trees’ leaves have dropped to the ground.

The tree I’m speaking of is the American Beech (Fagus grandiflora). The leaves are demonstrating marcescence (mar-SESS-ence), which means that although the leaves are dead and withered up, they are still connected to the stalk or petiole. Sometimes you can see other trees doing this same thing. In our area, marcescence can occur on oaks, American beech, hornbeam, Eastern hophornbeam, and witch hazels. The Beech leaves finally drop off in the spring when new leaves emerge and push them off. The

word comes from the Latin marcescere (“to fade”).

Scientists have not discovered why marcescence happens. They have theories. One is that the leaves that finally drop in the spring are providing a layer of fresh mulch for the tree. “Marcescence is often a juvenile trait and may disappear as the tree matures. It also may not affect the entire tree; sometimes leaves persist only on scattered branches. Marcescence is typically based on a tree’s genetics, but sometimes weather plays a part. In years with early freezes tree leaves may be killed before developing an abscission layer, resulting in persistent brown leaves on many trees that aren’t usually marcescent.

The beauty of the American Beech Tree in winter is an opportunity to take amazing pictures. Tiny ice crystals will form along the outer edge of the leaves, outlining them. On a snowy morning, when the sun causes the ice crystals to glisten and a slight breeze rustles the light bronze leaves, you might feel like you have entered the realm of the Snow Queen. Everything is so quiet. Then you hear that gentle rattling conversation of the Beech, with the background sound of the wind blowing through the limbs of the other leafless trees, causing the trees to shake and moan and creak. What an experience. A great excuse to bundle up, grab your camera, and walk the double loop trail at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in the winter months.

Bud popping through a leaf for next spring

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