The color of nature

By Dudley Wooten - PDT Columnist



When I design in color, I seem to have favorite trees, shrubs, and perennials for specific spots in the landscape. This may be about the plant’s size, fragrance, bloom, or leaf color. Today, let’s give some deep thought to leaf color. My mama always did say, “Beauty is only skin deep.”

When you think of nature, what colors come to mind? True, Mother Nature is a big ol’ girl and she would project herself in a wide spectrum of colors but what are her primary colors?

In my world, when I’m out in the woods, I see her as blue and green. If you see the forest from afar, it’s a green canopy and a blue sky backdrop. If you’re in this same forest, standing on the floor, looking up – it’s a different view but the same look – a green canopy and a blue sky backdrop

The colors of bark in winter and brilliant leaves in fall are great for a change but the primary color of nature in plant material would be green. As Kermit the Frog would say, “It isn’t easy being green.” Let’s dig a little deeper.

When we try to understand nature, it seems that for most, it’s easier to relate to animals rather then plants. This could be due to the fact that through the course of evolution, we’re much farther removed from plants than animals. It might be the difference in “kissin’ cousin” and a “distant relative.”

If we take such a practical approach as this, we see that our senses and systems have evolved in a such a parallel with other animals that we should ask ourselves, “Why should we know what goes on inside a tree?” Our sense of sight is a good example of that thought. Once again, I see a forest as green under blue. Maybe an oak tree sees its green as a way to take in sunlight and make sugar or a way to release oxygen and moisture. Maybe in a tree’s “mind” the blue sky means it’s time to eat. Of course, we’re comparing our thoughts of aesthetics to the trees natural needs for photosynthesis and transpiration.

To understand the significance of green to the forest and landscape is to first ask ourselves, “Why is the world full of color anyway?”

Sunlight is white and when reflected, it’s still white. We see things in color because most colors are absorbed and a certain color is reflected to our eye. Our perception of an object’s color is directly resulting from the wave lengths reflected. In the case of the forest – it’s green.

Why is it green? The chlorophyll in the leaf processes light to sugar and starch. There is, however, a “green gap.” The green wave length in the sunlight can’t be used in the process of photosynthesis so it’s rejected. When this happens, it’s the color green that we see.

Does this mean that our beautiful sight of green trees is actually “tree trash?” You would have to decide that.

Another interesting item about reflected green in the forest is “green shadows.” Have you noticed that even in the deepest forest under the total canopy cover, you can still see pretty well, yet no vegetation is growing?

The idea here is that it takes the rest of the spectrum to grow plants but the reflected green is bouncing around down there and we can see.

A beech canopy will allow only about 3% of the sunlight to pass through it. That means very little red or blue gets through but the rejected and reflected green does and that’s “green shadows.”

Let’s go one step farther and consider why some maples, crabapple, birch, redbud, or beech have red leaves in the landscape, “Copper beech” are good examples of red leaves in the spring and summer. The red leaf “royal frost birch,” “royal raindrops flowering crab,” crimson king maple,” bloodgood Japanese maple,” and “forest pansy redbud” trees, basically, have a metabolic disorder. They’re healthy and they have the sunblock that shields normal green-leaved trees from the red in the ultraviolet rays. The sunblock (anthocyanin) is in the red and green leaves but it’s accompanied by an enzyme in the green leaf and it wards off the red rays and color in the green leaf.

The red-leaved trees lack the enzyme and must absorb the red rays. This shows them to be red and they utilize the blue rays in photosynthesis. This means that they live and grow like a green leaf but not with the same vigor because the green-leaved trees are achieving more photosynthesis, using more of the color spectrum.

This is on the outside looking in, but internally the tree has a lot going on.

When you consider that within the cambium layer (under the bark), the moisture and nutrients flow from the roots to the leaves at a rate of 1/3 inch per second, it’s busy in there too.

When we look at a tree and just see a static object standing there – doing nothing, we had best think again.

May the forest be with you.


By Dudley Wooten

PDT Columnist

Dudley Wooten is the owner/operator of Wooten’s Landscaping and Nursery and can be contacted at 740-820-8210.

Dudley Wooten is the owner/operator of Wooten’s Landscaping and Nursery and can be contacted at 740-820-8210.