Quince, russet, olive, orange, squirrel, hazel, cashew, lemon, tawny, bay …….. What do I see on my daily walks that is turning all these colours, gradually and deliberately as this slow-motion season creeps along? Has there ever been a more gradual year? Spring started early, fattened, blossomed and ripened imperceptibly into summer. Summer took its time, dawdling from a fleetingly flaming June through idle dog days to a temperate September. Autumn made no fuss, kindling a bush here and a tree there while the borders grew plump and mellow and glistened with dew. Still in mid-November there has been no frost and two days of gales have still not stripped the trees.
The answer to my question is oaks, of course. There is no consensus among them. Most species of most plants are unanimous about their autumn colouring. Our most majestic tree, the most beautiful plant we grow, the emblem of our countryside, grows wilful as winter comes. It rages against the dying of the light. Oaks would be evergreen if they could, you feel. A few are, and some in this mild climate give it their best shot, hanging on to their leaves until March gales. Do we see an echo of this behaviour in their botanical cousins, the beeches, keeping their bright brown leaves all winter? These are no evergreen beeches (except of course among their southern-hemisphere relations, the nothofagi). But perhaps evergreenness, or reluctance to let go, is unconnected with botanical identity.
It has been nine months since the thermometer on the wall fell below freezing point. 280 days of almost absurdly temperate weather. If there has been stress in this tranquil time for plants it has been for lack of water. At the end of November we are four inches short of the year’s total rainfall at the same time last year and the year before. I am daily reminded of it by the fact that there is no water in my view: I have to go upstairs to see the duckpond.