Black Gum Trail

autumn foliage on black gum (Nyssa sylvatica)
autumn foliage on black gum (Nyssa sylvatica)

It’s astonishing how few local residents are aware of the fall foliage display of black gum, which begins a month or more in advance of most other trees. The oblong pointed leaves go from green to yellow to orange to red, different trees and sometimes even different branches turning on different schedules. But you have to get out of your car to see it: black gum tends to grow either in swamps and bogs or on dry, acidic, heath-oak forests. In Plummer’s Hollow we have plenty of the latter, and black gum is a major understory tree for a couple miles along our Laurel Ridge. About 15 years ago, we built a footpath paralleling the Plummer’s Hollow Road about two-thirds of the way up the ridge-side to afford maximum access to the black gum, following existing animal trails wherever possible. Today we led a small group of fellow nature enthusiasts up Plummer’s Hollow Road and back along Black Gum Trail, trying to spread the word about this under-appreciated tree.

wood nettle leaf
wood nettle leaf

A dry high blew in right at dawn — the temperature dropped five degrees Fahrenheit while I was sitting outside drinking my coffee and watching the harvest moon. First the moon was threading holes in the cloud cover, and the next thing I knew the whole western sky was clear. By the time we met the group at 10:00 o’clock, the sky was cloudless. Cars streamed northeastward past our bridge en route to a Penn State football game. It was a great day for — well, just about anything.

beech drops
beech drops in flower (a saprophytic parasite on beech trees)

Juniata Valley Audubon members are nature nerds and proud of it. We do call outings like this one “hikes,” but in practice they are usually slow rambles, with lots of field-guide consulting and peering through binoculars. We take joy in learning the difference between beech drops and dropped beech nut shells.

dropped beech nut shell
dropped beech nut shell on wild hydrangea leaf

I wish I could take credit for the idea of placing that shell on that leaf in a patch of sun, but this is exactly the way I found it. My art, if you can call it that, consists mainly of noticing things and placing a frame around them. I’m not even flexible enough to talk and snap pictures at the same time, so I had to take most of the photos in this set by dropping behind the rest of the group for a few seconds. And it never occurred to me to take a picture of the group itself.

chicken mushroom with mountain laurel
chicken mushroom with mountain laurel

After the “hike” was over, I went back to the beginning section of the Black Gum Trail — about 300 feet from my house — to shoot a few more pictures of the foliage, and found supper waiting on a log ten feet off the trail. How had all of us missed the fat yellow fans of chicken mushroom when we walked by two hours earlier?

black gum foliage

Maybe we were just too busy looking up.

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Be sure to send all tree-related blog post links to the Festival of the Trees by Tuesday (September 28). The October 1 edition of this four-year-old blog carnival is the science and nature blog Kind of Curious. Here are the details on how to participate.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

18 Comments


    1. Thanks for looking! I may add a photo of a black gum in berry, too, if the sun comes out this afternoon. Although, photgraphy aside, black gum foliage often seems most luminous on an overcast day. I find it very comparable to Japanese maple, which similarly can cover mountainsides in Japan, is usually an understory tree, and has about the same range of colors.

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  1. Beautiful photos, even if you can’t talk while you snap them; & delightful commentary.

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    1. Thanks, John. Hey, I was delighted to discover your Apollinaire blog just now! I have a translation of Alcools on the shelf, but I never thought it was all that good (not that I’d know for sure, lacking French). But I like your versions.

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  2. wow, the colours of those trees are magnificent! I love the natural artistic arrangement too. Looks like a wonderful hike all round.

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    1. Thanks. The naturalist-writer Bernd Heinrich somewhere stated as if it were axiomatic that in nature all colors match, and nothing is out of proportion.

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  3. Man, a hike in the Pennsylvania woods sounds better than hanging out with 100,000 of my closest friends any day. Especially if that hike is in PH.

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  4. I love my little black gum tho it doesn’t seem to color up on the same schedule as the wild ones do.

    As one who spends most of her time lagging behind the rest of any group, I think it’s important to turn around and look behind you, too… we miss so much on the first go round. The sun seems to enjoy putting a spotlight on different things, the more we lollygag.

    : )

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    1. Absolutely true, especially when your’e walking northeastward when the sun is in the west. My hiking buddy and I used to look for circular routes, but after a while realized that, as you say, there’s plenty more to see on the way back along the same trail.

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  5. True, true — to each his own. What kind of peace and serenity would one have if those 100,000 friends were also hiking? Yikes.

    But Stacy and I often spend football Saturdays hiking (and/or camping) in the PA woods.

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    1. Hey, good for you! Yeah, not to be selfish, but I’m glad for the solitude we generally get to experience even in the Rothrock and Bald Eagle State Forests near Penn State.

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  6. If you did think to place a beech hull on a leaf, it’d probably be a beech leaf…yes? Very pleasant virtual hiking/moseying. thanks

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    1. Yes, I suppose so. Sorry you weren’t on the hike for real, but glad you liked the post.

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  7. Kia ora Dave,
    Thanks for another great tramp!
    Cheers,
    Robb

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    1. Hey Robb, thanks for stopping by. Not a real tramp by NZ standards, but then again, the serious hikers around here join Sierra Club, not Audubon!

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  8. The colors of the leaves in the first and last photos are stunning–like jewels. Just beautiful!

    Reply

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