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Speaking of Nature

Kids & Critters: maple leaves

Well, October is finally here. Some may say April is the best month of the year, while others might suggest that May is actually better. For my money, the most beautiful month of the year in New England is October. The spectacular colors of fall don’t last long, but nothing can really compare to them. And then, of course, there is the fact that October ends with all of the fun associated with Halloween.

But before we all drift off into a sympathetic sugar coma, why don’t we give some thought to the beautiful colors that brighten up the October landscape? I imagine there are many arts-and-crafts projects that you may engage in at this time of year, but one that I remember fondly from my own childhood is making “stained glass” windows using leaves and waxed paper.

My mother was always great at having lots of outdoor activities for my brother, my sister and me when we were little. In the fall, she used to send us out into the backyard to collect the most beautiful leaves we could find. Then, we would come inside and carefully lay them out on the pages of a phone book so we could press them.

After two to three days, the leaves had a chance to flatten out and we could move on to the final stage of the project. We would use our artistic talents to create beautiful designs with the leaves on a sheet of waxed paper. The key was to make sure that the leaves didn’t overlap too much and to leave some empty space around the edges of the design.

When our design was finished, my mom would lay a second sheet of waxed paper on top of the leaves, cover them with a thin linen dish towel and then press down on them with a hot dry iron. The wax would fuse and seal in the leaves, which we could then frame with construction paper. Your mom will have to experiment with the amount of time the iron is used to get the right result, but it’s a lot of fun to experiment together!

Now there are lots of trees that change color in the fall. If you are looking for yellow leaves, you can try to find birch trees, elms and even grapevines. On the other hand, you might want to try to incorporate some reds into your designs. For red leaves, you can search for sumac trees, red oaks and some of the small crabapple trees that people plant in their lawns.

If you’re really lucky, however, you’ll have one of our local maple trees in your yard. Maples are the allstars of autumn and are capable of generating leaves that range from yellow, to orange, to red. The two standouts that produce some of the most colorful leaves you can find are the red maple and the sugar maple.

Both species are very common in our area so you just have to learn what a maple leaf looks like in order to find one. Fortunately, the leaf is so iconic of the north that Canada decided to feature the maple leaf on its national flag. To distinguish between the sugar maple and the red maple, you need only look at the edges of the leaf you have found. If the edge is smooth, then you have a sugar maple. If the edges are lined with lots of little “teeth,” then you have found a red maple.

The leaves of both species can be magnificent and if you are really lucky, you might be able to find a single leaf that has green, yellow, orange and red somewhere on it. It can also be fun to try to find small leaves that are all one color. It’s harder than you might think.

If you decide to give this art project a try, you can take a photo of your work and e-mail it to me so I can post it on my website. I’d love to see what kind of designs people come up with and I’m sure you’d be proud to be able to tell your friends and family that your work got published. Good luck and have fun.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years. In that time, he has been a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. His Speaking of Nature column runs weekly in The Recorder, except for the first Thursday of each month, which is when his Kids and Critters column for young readers appears. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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