While we are still enjoying summer weather, vegetation is rapidly advancing into autumn. The landscape has started to sport its autumn aspect. It’s as though Mother Nature has put on her “coat of many colors.”
One of the first shrubs to turn color in the fall is poison ivy. Poison ivy has beautiful fall foliage with the leaves either sporting deep red or bright orange. When I float the Bighorn River at this time of year I am astounded at the extent of the poison ivy patches scattered along drier slopes. It’s as though the poison ivy has been subdued all summer just waiting for the unwary to brush up against it and, now that it is fall, the plant comes out of hiding and makes a bold statement.
Whenever I think about poison ivy and its beautiful fall colors I remember back to college days. A fraternity at the college gave a fall party and every member helped collect bushels of bright autumn leaves. It seems the guys were looking for bright leaves and didn’t bother to identify them. Most everyone attending the party ended up with poison ivy rash.
Green ash also turns color early. The draws and drainages in northern Wyoming and southern Montana are now sharply outlined by the brilliant color of green ash. The leaves change from glossy green to waxy, glowing yellow. Like poison ivy, green ash isn’t that showy during the summer, but when it turns in September green ash can sure light up the countryside.
If you want to see green ash at its best, try a drive from Decker to Busby or Lodge Grass to St. Xavier. The draws along Rosebud Creek or Rotten Grass Creek are awash in warm yellow hues thanks to green ash trees.
Skunkbrush sumac has also started to turn. Skunkbrush frequents many hillsides in the region and will turn a subdued orange hue. Since skunkbrush is fairly common and dominates many slopes, the color change can be dramatic. Again, it’s the case of a rather nondescript bush suddenly turning into a very ostentatious one.
While the cottonwoods haven’t changed color yet, the quaking aspens in the foothills and mountains have. Probably most of the aspen in the mountains have shed their leaves, though I imagine the big grove of aspens at Steamboat Point along U.S. 14 is still sporting a bright yellow mantle. Unfortunately, that is about the only big aspen grove I know of in the region, so I can’t recommend any other routes to drive to check out aspen.
Here and there clumps of smooth sumac sport bright, glossy red colors. Smooth sumac grows along some dry ridges around Fort Smith, but it isn’t very common anywhere else. How unfortunate for the fall color scenery that there isn’t more sumac around.
With the mild weather we have had and are predicted to have through the weekend, there will be plenty of wildflowers to add color to the landscape. At present showy aster blossoms profusely along drainages. The small dime-sized flowers are so numerous that showy aster looks like a wreath of white draped about the banks of the Bighorn River.
Other wildflowers are showing off their autumn finery. There are still sunflowers blossoming, as are curly cup gumweeds. It seems that they will blossom until frost kills them. Dotted gayfeather stands about 6 to 10 inches high and presents a fine, feathery lavender blossom on a stalk that often has around six to eight blossoms. Incidentally, dotted gayfeather is closely related to the cultivar Liatris, which nurseries sell. It reaches heights of 2 to 3 feet.
While the autumn color show has just begun, you might consider taking in the opening act because a lot of the early colors will fade before the later colors chime in. So why not make it a point to get out and enjoy the early colors and then make a later tour? That way you can view the autumn colors twice.