Tree expert will guide visitors through foliage walk at college this weekend

MIDDLEBURY — Celebrate “Fabulous Fall Foliage” with a walk along the Trail Around Middlebury, sponsored by the Middlebury Area Land Trust. This hour-and-a half walk will be led by tree expert Tim Parsons, Middlebury College’s Landscape Horticulturist.
For Parsons, who is also a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and certified by the International Society of Aboriculture, fall foliage speaks to the tree’s life cycle.
“What I find fascinating about why trees turn is it’s the last ditch effort to wring every little piece of food out of their leaves that they can,” Parsons said. “You are seeing leaves turn because they’re breaking down the chlorophyll to convert them into sugars to use as food for next year.”
Trees mark time differently, Parsons noted, and this year’s fall display is a response to growing conditions a year ago. He said that 2017 would be an early and “inconsistent” fall because trees are responding to the 2016 drought. He noted that by late August, trees on Snake Mountain on the Weybridge/Bridport border and elsewhere around Addison County were already beginning to turn.
“They didn’t grow as well last year because of the drought. So we’re seeing the stress this year,” he said. 
MALT’s Fabulous Fall Foliage walk will begin near Middlebury College’s Mahaney Center for the Arts and take the section of the Trail Around Middlebury — known locally as the TAM — that arcs alongside the Middlebury College golf course.
Highlights will include a stand of 200- and 300-year-old red oaks: a remnant of the clayplain-oak-hickory forest that once covered much of the lower elevations of the Champlain Valley. The walk will pass through a “phenology” research site (phenology is the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena), where Middlebury biologists are studying the timing of trees’ spring flowering and budding, in part to track global warming. Along the trail, participants will get to see mixed stands of native trees, including shagbark hickory, butternut, hackberry and, of course, maple. The foliage hike will also pass by the college’s composting operation, where dining hall scraps get turned into over 400 yards of compost a year, used to nurture campus plants.
Parsons also hopes to show participants a 300-year-old burr oak near the Mahaney Center that Parsons estimates is about 60 feet tall and 90 feet wide. Parsons believes it was a “witness tree,” left to mark property boundaries.
As the Landscape Horticulturist Parsons takes care of the college’s urban forest, designs and installs the college’s landscapes, and insures sustainable management of the institution’s turf fields. Her has been in the green industry for more than 25 years, running a garden center and his own landscape design/build company, and has also been a caretaker for a large estate.
Asked why we never tire of watching fall foliage, Parsons revealed a personal connection to the annual bud to blaze pageant.
“For me it’s the end of a season,” Parsons said. “I don’t ever pay attention to New Year’s Day. My year starts in April when buds are starting to leaf out. And my year kind of ends when the leaves are gone. Then, like a bear, I kind of hibernate all winter and then you come back into it. You kind of ebb and flow like a tree.”
The day before MALT’s Fabulous Fall Foliage walk, Parsons will also lead a tour of the trees on the Middlebury College campus, as part of the college’s Fall Family Weekend (the event is open to the public). While Parsons said in early September that he hadn’t plotted out this year’s route entirely, highlights of the college’s collection of more than 2,200 trees include a rare collection of elm trees (most American elms were wiped out by Dutch elm disease in the 20th century), as well as such non-native species as katsura, Chinese scholar tree and Serbian spruce.      A COLORFUL TREE stands in contrast to a white building on Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus Tuesday morning. Fall colors are still muted in the Champlain Valley, but some brilliant color is on display in the mountains.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell

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