- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
Sweet gum and Bradford pear trees are planted on lawns and along streets in southeastern Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, for their attractive shapes, summer shade, colored leaves, and multitudes of white flowers on the pear trees in April.
But autumn foliage is the greatest beauty on these trees.
Sweet gum and Bradford pear leaves don’t start turning colors until late in October but continue well into November. Their brightly colored, glossy fall foliage glows in the low-slanting fall sunlight after most other autumn leaves have fallen from their twig moorings.
And the strikingly colorful foliage of sweet gums and Bradford pears is beautiful against the green of coniferous needles and the gray of deciduous limbs and trunks.
Sweet gums are Southern trees, sparingly established in scattered little thickets and woodland edges in the wild in southeastern Pennsylvania. Most sweet gums we see here were planted.
But all trees of this species bear beautiful yellow, red, and maroon leaves, all colors on the same tree, during the latter part of October and into November.
And they produce brown, pingpong-ball-sized, bristly seed balls that have several openings in each one that release many small, dark seeds that are eaten by seed-eating birds during fall and winter.
Those birds include two kinds of chickadees and a variety of sparrows and finches, which add much more beauty and intrigue to the sweet gums.
Bradford pears are domestic trees that are not native to North America. But this ornamental species is becoming ever more feral in this area. And by late October and well into November, their shiny leaves turn to maroon and bright red and are quite attractive clinging to their twigs.
This type of pear also grows olive-brown, berrylike fruits that are mature by autumn. Squirrels and mice eat many of those small fruits.
And a variety of berry-eating birds—including American robins, eastern bluebirds, cedar waxwings, blue jays, and starlings—feast heartily on them as well. These animals add to the appeal of Bradford pears in autumn and winter.
And the birds that digest the pulp of those fruits pass the seeds from them in their droppings as they fly here and there across the countryside. Baby trees sprout from some of those seeds in many scattered pastures, abandoned fields, and roadsides, even creating pure stands of feral Bradford pear trees that are especially lovely in November.
This November, watch for these two species of trees on lawns, meadows, and roadsides. Their attractive autumn leaves—and the pretty, interesting critters on them to consume their fruits—brighten many a gray November day.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.