If These Old Leaves Could Talk

As the new leaves of the year burst into our view, we should take a moment to reflect on the old, worn out leaves that they replace. The leaves of our deciduous trees and shrubs have long fallen to the ground and the overwintering leaves of our evergreen species will soon follow. For those of us who take the time to spruce up our yards, we have raked them up and put them in bags at the street. Still, others have burned them and perhaps a few of us have put them in a brush pile or in a compost bin (Thank You!!!). But, have we thought about what these plant parts have contributed to our world? They certainly did not fall to the ground just to give us something to do.

As I have encouraged you before, please do take a moment to stop and look. Pick up a fallen leaf or two from the ground as you are enjoying the greening of spring and take a close look. There is a rich story to be found in each and every leaf, even those that seem perfect, short of losing the color green. The colors themselves hint at how these incredible plant factories work to absorb carbon dioxide, release oxygen, and make sugars that are the base of the food chain. Green is the primary color in most leaves due to the pigment chlorophyll, which absorbs a portion of the light spectrum that fuels the process of photosynthesis. But leaves also have accessory pigments, called carotenoids, that capture the sun’s energy from a different part of the light spectrum. These red, yellow, or orange pigments are typically overshadowed by chlorophyll in most plants until the leaves start to die and chlorophyll fades – to expose the colors of fall. But the color of the leaves is only a part of the story the fallen leaves can tell. The many holes and ragged edges tell yet another story. Leaves are fed upon by a myriad of insects from caterpillars, crickets, and katydids that chew from the outside to leaf miners that chew from within. Still, other insects like leafhoppers used their piercing-sucking mouthparts to suck juices from the leaves, leaving round green-less spots that, as you now hold the leaf, have turned brown or black because fungi have taken their turn at the leaf table of plenty.

This cornucopia of insects, in turn, feed a multitude of other insects, spiders, and birds. The soft-bodied caterpillars and spiders found among the leaves and branches of our native trees are in fact the staple food source that most of our common backyard birds feed their young, even the seed and fruit-eating birds like Northern Cardinal. There is much drama among the branches of the trees above your head as you contemplate the history of the leaf in your hand and what it went through over the nearly year-long life in the tree.   Yes, that leaf in your hand has a story to tell that is one of the millions that lay on the ground around you and hang above your head. So, take the time to look and wonder about the life lived by that now fallen leaf. And if you are so inclined, do what my Native American friend Marie would suggest and thank that leaf for what it did to enrich our lives: from the clean air it helped create to the insects and birds that it helped to feed. Every piece and part of nature has value – especially the leaves.

Hope to see you all in our great outdoors!!!


Written by Mark W. LaSalle, Ph.D.

Mark is a naturalist and wetland ecologist, providing expertise on wetlands, water quality and environmental impacts of humans. He has also developed and conducted a number of environmental education programs and workshops for youth, teachers, realtors, and the general public on a variety of subjects including wetlands, natural history, and environmental landscaping. Mark is a graduate of the University of Southwestern Louisiana (B.S. and M.S. degrees) and Mississippi State University (Ph.D.). Mark is the recipient of the Chevron Conservation Award, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation Conservation Educator Award, the Gulf Guardian Award, and the Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver Award.


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