Fall color on Long Island is quite variable in its appearance. While the colors can be quite vibrant, the wide varieties of native and non-native tree species found on Long Island tend to reach their peak colors at different times, denying us the concentrated explosion of color celebrated in other parts of the northeast. However, there are some exceptions.
The earliest and among the more concentrated displays of fall color on Long Island are those that occur in and near wetland areas. In many of these areas, the fall colors are usually noticeable beginning in September and are past peak by mid October. Among the most common wetland tree species on the island are Red Maple (Acer rubrum) and Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica). Red Maples often provide spectacular displays of color ranging from red to orange to yellow. The Black Gum leaves turn a bright shade of red early in the fall. As of September 25, significant color was already in evidence around Stump Pond in Smithtown. The Black Gums, which are easily identifiable as the trees with the red leaves were already dropping their leaves in significant numbers.
The area around Stump pond, in Blydenburgh Park contains miles of hiking trails and bridle paths through wetland and upland habitats and is a good place for a fall walk in the woods. In general, the Nissequogue River watershed includes many good locations to catch an early show of fall color. Excellent displays during the first half of October usually occur in Caleb Smith State Park, especially near the prime trout fishing areas on the south side of Route 25. Hiking in this area requires that you first sign in at the park headquarters on the north side of Rt. 25 where, if necessary, you can also get the combination for a gate separating Caleb Smith and Blydenburgh Parks. Parts of the wetland area to the south are visible from Rt. 25, so you can monitor the progression of the fall colors as you drive by. These woods are usually substantially bare and sporting a winter time look by around mid October, even as many trees in suburban neighborhoods are only just beginning to show color. Even non-wetland species seem to shed their leaves earlier in the wetland areas, as evidenced by the Tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) on the hillsides above the trout stream and ponds.
Another hot spot of early color in the woods along state route 25A just northwest of the Smithtown Bull and north of the LIRR tracks (there is a pond and stream system within the parcel). It remains to be seen if the fall color in this area will be impacted by the insect defoliations that have occurred each of the past two springs. And, on a sunny warm fall day, canoeing the tidal portion of the Nissequogue can be an excellent site seeing experience.
Other good early fall color shows on Long Island can be found near the other three main rivers (Peconic, Carmans, and Connetquot), near some of the many kettle hole ponds in the Pine Barrens, and along the numerous small streams and ponds found along both the north and south shores.
The upland areas of Long Island tend to reach peak colors toward the end of October, and in some years into early November. One of the exceptions are Dogwoods, which are common as an under story tree in many of the north shore woods and tend to turn red quite early, usually beginning in September.
Some of the oak trees species which are common in dry woods on both the north shore and the south shore can be surprisingly colorful. This is especially true in parts of Connetquot State Preserve (most notably the east or southeast part of the preserve), where the aptly named Scarlet Oaks (Quercus coccinea) put on a spectacular show of scarlet color beginning around mid October. Although growing in fairly dry soils, these trees are not too far from the Connetquot River and its associated ponds, which may have something to do with the reason they drop their leaves earlier than most of the white and black oak species found in upland woods around Long Island.
Oak trees, the most common species on Long Island being white oak, black oak and red oak (Q. alba, Q. velutina and Q. rubra, respectively) in some years provide a significant amount of color, mainly shades of orange and red beginning in late October and usually do not drop the majority of their leaves until some time in early November. Some of the oaks show very little color before the leaves turn brown and drop off, and on some of the oaks the brown leaves will persist on the branches throughout most of the winter. Other predominantly upland species such as beech, hickory, walnut, birches and sassafras tend to get mainly yellow leaf colors during the autumn, although in most years the timing of the peak colors is not well coordinated.
Other trees, such as the Tulip Tree which is very common in parts of the north shore, drop their leaves on the late side with very little color; perhaps just a touch of yellow and brown.
Among the latest common trees to turn colors and drop their leaves are the Norway Maples (Acer platanoides) which often retain dark green leaves until mid November. When they do change colors, the leaves on these non-native trees usually turn a pale yellow, although in some years they may turn a brighter yellow which can be quite noticeable in a landscape of mostly bare trees. In many recent years, the majority of these trees have dropped their leaves around Thanksgiving. The Norway maple, considered by many to be an invasive species, is still commonly planted in suburban landscapes and has exasperated many a Long Island homeowner faced with raking the maple leaves in December, weeks after all the other leaves have been cleaned up.
There is at least one ornamental species that waits even longer to shed its leaves; the Bradford Pear. In some warmer years, a few individual trees have retained green leaves into December and not completely shed their leaves until nearly Christmas. This may be the exception, rather than the rule, but the reward is some brilliant red colors ... and more December raking.