As a shade loving, understory tree, Carpinus caroliniana, known as American Hornbeam or Ironwood, is rarely seen as a colorful autumn tree. But given the right circumstances, particularly enough sun, the normal pale yellow leaves can be replaced by bright red. The tree below grows right at the forest edge where it gets a long exposure to morning sun.
Hawthorn trees are well known for bright fall colors. The Parsley Hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii) shown below also has a large crop of berries to go along with the changing leaf colors. The second photo also illustrates the unique, deeply cleft leaves that are characteristic of this species.
During the autumn when large asters and goldenrods are flowering in the fields, it is easy to miss the blooms of the very small plants that live only a few inches above the soil. Storksbill, a close relative of our common Carolina Cranesbill, normally blooms in the summer, but individual plants, like this one, may bloom much later. Storksbill (Erodium cicutarium) is a naturalized, non-native plant with considerable invasive potential. It is uncommon in the Falls Lake area. It can be separated from Carolina Cranesbill (Geranium carolinianum) by its unusual leaves and very long seed pods. The leaves of Storksbill are compound and resemble a fern or feather. Cranesbill leaves are deeply cut and palmate in form.
Porcelainberry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) has recently joined the army of invasives laying siege to the Falls Lake Dam. The colorful pink and blue berries provide an atypical fall color in early November. It is a member of the grape family (Vitaceae) and its leaves closely resemble wild grape leaves.
The Frost Aster, Symphyotrichum pilosum, is one of the most common, widespread, and familiar autumn plants in Eastern North America. It is so widespread that it has been given many colorful regional names: Hairy White Oldfield Aster, Hairy Aster, Heath Aster, and Frost Aster. Plants can range greatly in size, and large clusters are often seen along rural roadsides and fields, as illustrated below.
A close look at an individual Frost Aster reveals the extremely pilose ( long, soft hairs ) nature of the plants. Fine hairs can be seen covering the stem and the margins of the leaves. Plants can be so hairy that in the early morning dew they appear to be covered in frost – hence the common name Frost Aster.
Solidago altissima, the Tall Goldenrod, is one of the most dominant and familiar fall perennials in Eastern North America. The tall masses of these flowers in open fields, roadsides and powerlines add a bright golden hue to the autumn landscape throughout North Carolina.
Rhus aromatica, Fragrant Sumac, is generally found in full or partial shade, but needs only a few hours of sun to express bright red fall colors. Cultivated varieties are popular in horticultural landscape plantings because they are less invasive than most sumacs, retain a compact shape, and can be bred for spectacular deep red foliage that persists for weeks.