Autumn Breaks the Mold in South Texas

Outside my office door a soft breeze blows a shower of pecan leaves, the color of butterscotch, to the ground. A United Nations of butterfly species dance around the dark-red salvia and pale-blue plumbago. One by one, the fig leaves, in no particular hurry, let go their branches. All over the city, people are laying in half-cords of mesquite and oak in hopeful anticipation that the nightly temperature will bring the sort of mild chill that warrants lighting a fire.

Long after New England's brilliant autumn foliage has reached its hallowed peak, here in south Texas it is fall at last. It took me a long time to appreciate my local autumn, being from the East myself, but after 15 years in Texas, I now welcome this season on its own terms.

Let me explain.

In San Antonio, Texas, autumn signals a release from summer, much the way late spring rescues northerners from winter. You can't imagine the relief when the overnight temperature drops below 70 degrees. Moods swing up, children quit complaining about playing outside, air conditioners get their first break in months. Friends pull their (all-cotton) sweaters out of storage and rush to the grocery store for ingredients to make stew or soup, or anything that doesn't have to be cooked on an outdoor grill.

Autumn seems to work on a different principle entirely in this region. In the north, sudden cold, dry weather triggers a photosynthetic reaction in deciduous-tree leaves that send them on a multi-hued journey toward the earth. But in south Texas, fall seems to be a process of infusion, accomplished through the slow and powerful transference of summer's light directly into the leaves of trees and plants.

Visually, the clues that autumn is under way are subtle. The leaves of the native red oak, a tree that commercial landscapers have begun using a lot in recent years, begin to look a little faded, like upholstery that's been exposed to bright sun. Soon the hackberry and the cedar elm follow suit. The pyracantha produces bright-red berries that droop against green foliage and look pretty in a vase on a table.

The palette of fall colors here is much broader than in the region where I grew up. For years I resented the fact that a south Texas autumn is not colorful the way a North Carolina autumn is. Now I think it's hysterical that pink queen's crown are at their showiest in the fall here, revived from summer's heat. They are everywhere, as are the pink pentas and a few leftover bougainvillaea and geraniums. Pink is definitely a fall color.

Red is a different story. Sugar-maple crimson rarely makes an appearance. Instead, the reds here are dark and rich, the color of garnet. Sure, every now and then a flaming red sumac peeks out from among the scrubby live oaks that blanket the land north of the city. But they are the exception. Yellows are well-represented, though, with amber or copper often appearing in tandem with Crayola red-purples.

Blues, tending in various plants to gray or purple, round out the autumn color wheel. There's the abundant spiky purple sage, the lavender-blue asters, the plumbago that's so attractive to butterflies, and - when it's damp - the green-gray ceniza bearing delicate, light-purple flowers.

But to my eye, the very best place to see the Texas palette of autumn is in the native grasses: in Lindheimer's and purple muhly, in the blue-gray little bluestem, and the golden side oats grama. They show up more and more in private and public landscapes, as well as growing wild along roadsides. These grasses are at their most beautiful between August and November.

I want my children to recognize the beauty of this season as well, and I have my work cut out for me. It seems the whole country conspires to send them messages that their fall is second-rate, a shadow of what a real autumn is. Every year at this time, the local papers' travel pages plug the 2-1/2-hour drive from San Antonio to the Sabinal River, where one can glimpse at a stand of pretty "fall-colored" maple trees. About 50,000 cars choke the two-lane roads to the park so passengers can see a slice of New England-style autumn. It's ridiculous.

Every retail outlet has its "fall leaves" display, from local grocery stores to shopping centers. Even my kids' school library displays books about autumn, but none of the displays look anything like what's going on outside the school.

Here's what I tell them and myself: Look a little harder for autumn in south Texas. The signs of the season are all around, but you must cultivate an eye for seeing them. It's like catching sight of that one goldfinch that paused in the backyard last month. We saw it because our eyes were trained on the backyard.

Our version of fall has a lot to do with paying attention, and of expanding our ideas about the "proper" colors of fall. Then we can stick sprigs of delicate queen's crown and Mexican mint marigold in with the pyracantha, and call it like it is - a fall bouquet.

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