Glorious Gold and Brown (and Golden Brown Too)

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Red fall color is the universal favorite, and I get it. Like everybody else, I’m a fan. There is nothing like coming upon an ‘October Glory’ red maple or a Stewartia pseudocamelia in fully saturated scarlet regalia. But I have got a complaint. While admitting that these attention seeking plants, the harlots of fall, are indeed capable of capturing and holding the attention of even a speeding bank robber as they flee the cops, text, change the CD, and finish a burrito, I still lament that maybe, just sometimes, they also distract us from enjoying some less obvious natural beauties.

‘Brandywine’ red maple.
Parrotia subaequalis, foreground, the sole subject of all conversations between plant geeks for about a decade.

Too often, I have sat there quietly while some horticultural influencer casually dismisses a plant’s fall color as “just yellow.” Every time, I want to scream, “Hey, asshole! Yellow is a color too. Last I heard, Crayola has sold as many yellow crayons as red.” But I never do. In general, I don’t make scenes. I just seethe instead. But I wonder, is it truly fair and proper, or even moral, to not pay appropriate homage to the clear, piercing, perfect yellow fall splendor of  spicebush (Lindera benzoin)? Or of bottlebrush buckeye, (Aesculus parviflora)? Or yellowood (Cladrastus kentuckea)? 

Yellowwood.

Another thing I wonder, and this is off the track a little bit, when does yellow become gold? Because I’m confused. Despite no variance in hue that I can see, the herd has decided that ginkgos are gold while yellowwoods are yellow. The power of marketing? The allure of alliteration? 

Ginkgo gold.
This is what you do the day after the night when all the ginkgo leaves drop. Michael Barnes (foreground) and Steve Foltz.

Ever the of the champion of the underrated, overlooked, and downtrodden, I have made it a point for the past decade or so to give plants with outstanding yellow foliage the credit they deserve. (Please, don’t call me a hero. And don’t start up GoFundMe account or anything. I’m just doing what anyone of my caliber would do.) 

But a funny thing happened in the process. I have come to truly appreciate the exquisite combination that happens when brown and gold are presented together. While brown has the reputation it has, I think, because there are so many really gross brown things in the world, somehow it’s just the right foil to set off yellow. Combined, they deliver a richness of tone and texture that people of exceptional taste and goodwill cannot help but savor. See what you think.  

Magnolia macrophylla (Bigleaf magnolia) at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.
Magnolia macrophylla (Bigleaf magnolia).
Sweetbay magnolia.
Beech.
Beech.
Sawtooth oak.
Carpinus laxiflora.

13 COMMENTS

  1. My favorite fall colors are trees around here that turn yellow with orange mixed in, and just hints of red- so overall it has a peachy color that just seems to glow. I’m not sure what species they are, though.

  2. Thanks for the laugh in the beginning of the article, I’ll have to find reason to quote you if the topic of color comes up, Hey a****,e, Lol. You’re right about yellow in the fall, esp. in the case of the beech tree – gorgeous!

  3. Just so you know the gingko tree across the street from my home resides in a beautiful setting on the campus of the University of Southern Maine. It is a beacon of beautiful YELLOW every fall to all who stroll the lovely hills of the campus. It is distinctive in its age, size, and straight stature helping highlight the distinctive historic buildings. The colors of fall is plural for a reason, if they were all red it would leave us wanting.

  4. Don’t know why yellow is so maligned. I adore it. In my neck of the woods yellow, brown and pale oranges are the predominant leaf colours in Fall. Gorgeous! Hints of red in pasture grasses makes everything glow. Best time of year.

  5. With you 100% – but it might be because I live in a stream valley surrounded by oh-so-yellow liriodendron. And my edgeworthia sits just in front of the door, and is still melting yellow from green. And then there’s the rich (gotta say golden instead of yellow) hickories. All worthy of more contemplation. Not a stretch to regard my reds as harlots – I do believe I will from here on out. – MW

  6. Being a very amateur artist, I had to save that photo captioned “Gingko Gold” in my file for possible future paintings. Great shadow effects and haze in the distance. Inspiring!

  7. What makes fall color so spectacular is the way the colors play off of each other. The reds, or yellows/ golds, lucious browns and their various shapes and textures would be nothing without each other.

  8. November is the time for more subtle things to shine. Although the blaze of glory is over, our eyes can find pleasure in yellow, brown, a shimmer of ice over a trickle of water, little vignettes that still bring joy.

  9. I agree, I love the yellow, gold, russet tones of fall. However, I find the term ‘harlot’ sexist and offensive–find another term!

  10. Yesterday evening, I was admiring the warm leather brown leaves of my Magnolia’Little Gem’ trees, supposing that Martha Stewart might have a craft project whereby I could bring this soothing tone into our interior decor, but the thought that this craft might require using a glue gun frightened me back into the house holding a single leaf.

  11. Yes, yellow is wonderful but what about the purples, bronzes and maroons of elms and oaks?? If there’s a yellow to contrast that can be spectacular. Too much of any color becomes boring. Thanks for championing other colors. I like the light tans of grasses, goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace gone by, especially with frost on them and sunlight behind. I am a fiber artist so I always look for inspiration outdoors. The photos are great.

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