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Guest Column: Take a look beyond fall colors in the Cuyahoga Valley

by Jennie Vasarhelyi | Cuyahoga Valley National Park Published: October 12, 2016 12:00 AM
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The appeal of brilliant fall colors draws people outside during October in northeast Ohio. The colors are spectacular and deserve attention. But your enjoyment of nature doesn't need to end there. Looking beyond fall colors will reward you with discovery of the diversity, intricacy, and cycles of nature. This article may remind you about what is already familiar, but I hope it will also encourage you to look beyond the familiar to details that you might have missed before.

We equate fall with the harvest season, the time of year when the growing season ends and we store its bounty for the coming lean months. In nature, as in the farmer's field, a sense of the harvest prevails. Nuts, fruits, and seeds provide abundant food for wildlife to eat to fatness and create their winter caches.

Nuts in particular are a fall treasure that can be found on any wooded path. Some have already become food, while others are waiting to be found and eaten. Acorns from oak trees might be the most familiar. They are an important part of the fall harvest for wildlife. We have several species of oak, with white and red oak being the most common. While all acorns taste bitter because of high tannin content, white oak acorns are less so. This difference means that squirrels tend to eat white oak acorns immediately and store red oak acorns for later. Without tasting them, you can also tell the difference by the knobbier scales on the white oak acorn's cap.

Where you find acorns, also look for oak apple galls on fallen oak twigs and leaves. Galls form in reaction to insects laying eggs in plant tissue. In this case, the gall is caused by a type of wasp. An oak apple galls is the size and shape of a golf ball. The outer shell is papery brown and the inside is spongy. You should be able find a noticeable hole where the adult wasp has drilled its way out of the gall.

While acorns might be the most familiar fall nut, there are others to discover. Two common nut trees along the Towpath Trail are Ohio buckeyes and black walnuts. Buckeyes are some of the first nuts to fall, just as its leaves are among the first to change colors. The buckeye's glossy brown coating with a light circular patch makes it easy to identify. If you find a buckeye, look around for its prickly outer casing.

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Like the buckeye, the black walnut has an outer husk that disguises the more familiar nut inside. The husk starts as spongy and green, but darkens as it decays. An oily, brown-staining substance called juglone is concentrated in the husk and becomes obvious if you break open a darkened husk. Juglone is a chemical that prevents many plants, including walnut seedlings, from growing around a walnut tree. Juglone, however, encourages some plants like black raspberry, so look for this prickly shrub with white-powdered stems near walnut trees.

Along upland trails, the mix of nuts changes. Here is where you will find acorns. Also look for hickory nuts, with rounded outer hulls that split into four sections to reveal the nut underneath. It also is an important harvest food for wildlife.

Fruits and seeds are the other products of harvest time. Many of the more familiar wild fruits like blueberries, black raspberries, and blackberries are summer finds. In fall, poison ivy, with its numerous small white berries, is an important fruit for birds. Wild grapes and black cherry trees also provide fruit this time of year.

To enjoy seeds, visit an old field that has become grown over with wildflowers. Many of the flowers have gone to seed, and you can find them in interesting shapes and sizes. The pleasure that you get from blowing dandelion seeds can be enjoyed with a variety of plants like goldenrods and milkweeds that have seeds with threads that let them get carried in the wind.

You can discover the natural details of fall on the many trails in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. For more information about the trails, call 330-657-2752 or visit online at www.nps.gov/cuva.

Editor's note: Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

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