October has always been thought of as a turbulent time for the nation’s trees – but, it has its own stories to tell. 

A JOURNALIST from the old school once told me not to start a story without having something to hang my hat on; wise words that have served me well, because I never put pen to paper unless a title tops the page. 

‘Tales about trees’ for a particular month in the year come with degrees of difficulty, although the dynamic days of October are not short on stories to tell. The month has always been thought of as a turbulent time, although the turmoil and tumult associated with ‘fall’ actually starts in September with the autumn equinox on September 22 or thereabouts. 

READ MORE: Forestry: Are the UK's trees still at their peak in August?

Much less appreciated is how this ‘wilder weather’ is invariably followed by a more tranquil time, coinciding with the celebration of St Luke the Evangelist and Physician. St Luke was one of the four traditionally ascribed authors of the canonical gospels and credited with authorship of the Gospel of Luke by the Fathers of the Early Church. The Catholic Church and other major denominations of the Christian Church venerate him as St Luke the Evangelist and as the patron saint of physicians and artists among others. 

However, there is also a rustic association because the Feast of St Luke on the 18th day of the month of October is at the centre of a traditional period of still, settled and sunny weather. Indeed, a break from the turbulence and turmoil of autumn and the impending dark, cold days of winter, a period appropriately called St Luke’s Little Summer and vital for savouring the splendour of our deciduous trees in autumn attire. Authors, poets and artists of yesteryear painted this period as the time when autumn trees are at their very best, albeit fleetingly, but for long enough to raise the spirits before the cave walls of winter close in.

Forestry Journal: Outstanding in October – whitebeam with berries and leaves.Outstanding in October – whitebeam with berries and leaves. (Image: FJ)

The journey for leaves into autumn is a long, drawn-out process requiring the right environmental conditions (light, temperature and moisture) at the right times, but to no avail without St Luke’s Little Summer. An absence of these sublime and settled conditions, traditionally starting halfway through October, causes already colourful leaves (with an increasingly tenuous grip) to come flooding down in the wind and rain before the world has time to absorb the real beauty of autumn.

So when does the autumn process for trees begin? Arguably from the moment the new green leaves burst from the bud in spring and start to make food for energy and growth by entrapping the sun’s rays. But it starts in earnest during the month of September, when the rapid retreat in daylight hours and descending temperatures mean deciduous trees’ leaves can no longer perform their one and only function. No longer of use and actually a liability during low-light, low-temperature winters, the trees make preparations for shedding the entire leaf load. 

But not during the first half of September when bright, sunny days can trick the mind and the tree into thinking we are still in summer. Who can fail to remember having a late-August seaside holiday ruined by rain, only to return to school with afternoon sunshine streaming through the window? The real reckoning comes with the autumn equinox, when the fourth and final week of September sets in. Light in length and intensity is in rapid retreat, with temperatures falling fast.

The exact timing of events in the three calendar months of autumn (September, October and November) is sometimes difficult to rationalise in today’s real time, given the increasingly weird behaviour of our current climate, but our forebears gave strong clues in their diaries, poems and paintings. 

The poet Robert Bridges, whose thoughts and writings spanned the latter part of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, was firm in his view of the calendar autumn. Of September, Bridges wrote:

Earth’s flaunting flower of passion fadeth, fair
To ripening fruit in sunlit veils of the air ...

Bridges was clearly referring to the early part of September and classic harvest time, with dry, sunny weather required to cut and stook barley, oats and wheat. But things have always changed quickly during the autumn period, and just four weeks later in October: 

On frosty morns with the woods aflame, down, down
The golden spoils fall thick from the chestnut crown ...

But which chestnut tree was Bridges referring to? Given that he was inside woodland, in mind if not body, ‘Bridges the Bard’ was almost certainly talking about the sweet chestnut tree and probably during one of St Luke’s Little Summers. But all good things come to an end and quickly too because by November: 

Sad mists have hid the sun, the land is forlorn
The plough is afield, the hunter windeth his horn ...

From ‘The Months (Basil and Edward)’
By Robert Bridges (1844–1930)

October in Scotland was both a stimulating and a sad time according to Scottish poet George MacDonald:

Autumn clouds are flying, flying
O’er the waste of blue;
Summer flowers are dying, dying
Late so lovely new ...
Autumn’s sun is sinking, pinking
Into winter’s night;
And our hearts are thinking, thinking
Of the cold and flight

From ‘Autumn Song’
By George MacDonald (1824–1905)

William Henry (W.H.) Hudson, of North American (New Englander) parentage and spending his early years in Argentina, went on to become one of Britain’s most perceptive nature writers. He saw September as marking a sudden start to autumn, especially on those higher and more exposed elevations like the South Downs.

Forestry Journal: Autumn leaf colour seems to pass the hawthorn by. but the scarlet-coloured haws more than make up for the ‘no show’.Autumn leaf colour seems to pass the hawthorn by. but the scarlet-coloured haws more than make up for the ‘no show’. (Image: FJ)

He described autumn as hitting the September landscape with days of whistling winds and driving rain and night temperatures touching freezing point. He considered there to be little difference between September and December on the hills, with which Elizabeth Barrett Browning appears to agree in her poem ‘The Autumn’.

Go, sit upon the lofty hill,
And turn your eyes around,
Where waving woods and waters wild
Do hymn an autumn sound    

From ‘The Autumn’
By Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861)

Ancient weather lore says: “A good October and a good blast, to blow the hog, acorn and mast”; perhaps wishing for traditional October winds to blow down acorns and beech nuts for pigs to forage on.

Trees in St Luke’s 
Little Summer

So what can you expect to see on individual tree species during St Luke’s Little Summer in October 2023, if indeed we are lucky enough to have one? And this is increasingly in doubt given the degree of ‘climate weirding’ as the years pass by.

The best of beech
If you have to select a species that excels over all others during St Luke’s Little Summer, then it has to be the beech tree. The best description of beech at this time belongs to Gertrude Clarke Nuttall BSc, one of the first women (if not the first) to graduate with a degree in botany from a British university. Gertrude Clarke Nuttall said of the beech tree during the period: “The beech is dipped in wine”,  clearly calling out coppery-coloured leaves which make the beech tree stand out at this time as the most warm and welcoming amongst its neighbouring native trees; perhaps rivalled only by the transitory oranges and reds of the wild cherry tree and a kaleidoscope of colours put on by the shy and retiring wild service tree.

Adding to the beech tree’s foliar ‘fantasia’ is its rusty-coloured nut-husks crowded on the branches (during a mast year), with gaping jaws ready to release the dark triangular-shaped beech nuts onto the ground and into an increasingly thick carpet of rustling, russet-coloured leaves. 

But the story did not end there as John Evelyn, England’s acknowledged ‘Father of Forestry’, tells us in his 17th century masterpiece Sylva. John Evelyn describes “the [fallen] leaves of the beech being gathered about the fall; and somewhat before they are too frost-bitten to afford the best and easiest mattresses in the world to lay under a quilt; and instead of straw because beside their tenderness and loose lying together they continue sweet for seven or eight years long”. 

Forestry Journal: Sweet chestnut leaves colour up quickly in October.Sweet chestnut leaves colour up quickly in October. (Image: FJ)

But wait around until late afternoon to see the ruddy glow of the low early evening sun shining through the copper-coloured leaves still attached to the branches. And this best of beech was captured and encapsulated by Scottish poet and cleric Andrew Young, who wrote that autumnal beech is a ‘sunset’: 

When the long, varnished buds of beech
Point out beyond their reach
And tanned by summer suns
Leaves of black bryony turn bronze,
And gossamer floats bright and wet
From trees that are their own sunset ...

From ‘Beech-Wood’
By Andrew Young (1885–1971)

Beech appears to have been a speciality for Young. In another poem, with the simple title ‘The Beech’, he identifies another feature, this time a peculiarity; how the leaves colour up and then dry up without detaching from the twigs and branches, often holding on until the following spring when the new foliage finally pushes them off of the tree. 

Its long thin buds in glistering varnish dipt
Are swinging up and down,
While one young beech that winter left unstript
Still wears its withered crown

From ‘The Beech’
By Andrew Young 

An even more peculiar character than young beech trees retaining dead leaves through winter and into spring is how classic English poets appear to have shied away from the beech tree in autumn and left it to the Scots. According to the high priests of purity on native trees, common beech is only native to that portion of the British Isles south and east of a line from the Wash (Norfolk) to Monmouthshire in south-east Wales. 

Forestry Journal: Wait around until late afternoon to see the ruddy glow of low early evening sun shining through the copper-coloured beech leaves. During October beech is a sunset all on its own.Wait around until late afternoon to see the ruddy glow of low early evening sun shining through the copper-coloured beech leaves. During October beech is a sunset all on its own. (Image: Dr Terry Mabbett)

Beech growing elsewhere has, according to them, been carried to and planted there by man. Indeed, according to the real extremists, beech has no place there and should not be there and be removed, which is what has happened over the years in a range of areas including North Wales, Cumbria and almost certainly parts of Scotland. However, if Young is anything to go by, Scottish poets have paid absolutely no heed to the hardliners, a view reinforced by the fact that one of the only other classic poems on the beech tree was written by another Scot, Glasgow-born Thomas Campbell.  It is almost as though Campbell is begging today’s ‘native tree nutters’ to leave the beech tree in Scotland be.  

O’ leave this barren spot to me!
Spare, woodman, spare the beechen tree!
Though bush or floweret never grow
My dark unwarming shade below;
Nor summer bud perfume the dew
Of rosy blush, or yellow hue;
Nor fruits of autumn, blossom-born,
My green and glossy leaves adorn;
Nor murmuring tribes from me derive
Th’ ambrosial amber of the hive;
Yet leave this barren spot to me:
Spare, woodman, spare the beechen tree!

From ‘The Beech Tree’s Petition’
By Thomas Campbell (1777–1844)

The Harlequin elms
What the ‘old’ poets penned about autumnal beech is still there to be seen and savoured, but not so attire of the autumnal English elm, unless you happen to live in just a handful of places where mature English elms still survive as full-grown, mature trees following the destruction caused by Dutch elm disease now half a century ago. Even so, an English elm tree in autumn at Brighton Pavilion is no substitute for an English elm tree in an erstwhile natural home such as an East Anglian hedgerow. And so the autumnal behaviour of the English elm, documented as quaint by those who knew, can only be read about or seen on the painted canvas and in a pre-1970s colour photograph if you are very lucky. 

Common ash
And finally we come to common ash, once one of the most frequently found trees on the British landscape, but becoming rarer and rapidly too as Chalara ash dieback disease continues with its curse on the tree. Common ash was never flashy in the fall. Tree canopies turned anaemic yellow before shedding their leaf load. Fall without fanfare but with added interest. Leaflets attached to the rachis are shed one by one, a peculiarity picked up by the Welsh poet Edward Thomas:

The leaflets out of the ash-tree shed
Are thinly spread
In the road, like little black fish, inlaid
As if they played

From ‘After Rain’
By Edward Thomas (1878–1917)

Thomas was one of the most perceptive poets who penned their thoughts on nature, but we were denied many years more of the Welshman’s outstanding works when he was tragically killed at Arras in France (1917) serving his country during the First World War.