Steamboat Springs — A good sign fall had arrived in the Yampa Valley in the 1860s and 1870s was a visit from Chief Colorow.
Colorow was a Comanche but was adopted by Ute Indians and eventually became a chief. Janie Swartz, a professor at Colorado Mountain College who teaches a class on Native Americans, said Colorow would make frequent visits to local ranches during the fall. His visits were not in an official capacity as chief. Instead, it was to add some capacity to his waistline by asking for some pioneer food.
“He especially loved hot buttered biscuits,” Swartz said.
Accounts in Marshal Sprague’s book “Massacre,” (which tells about Native Americans in Northwest Colorado), describe Colorow as 300 pounds. Much of his weight was put on thanks to pioneer women’s kitchens, despite some of the cooks’ displeasure in having the chief repeatedly show up to raid their kitchens.
However, when Colorow died in 1878, some of the ranch wives reportedly missed the buttered-biscuit-loving native.
About 130 years later, locals don’t have Colorow around to introduce the fall, but what is still here is the color. Though Sept. 22 marked the official beginning of fall, the reds and yellows in Routt County’s landscape have hinted that autumn arrived a few weeks ago.
Gary Roper, a forester for the U.S. Forest Service, said the color that has painted the hills in the county is more than a sign that the leaves will be dropping. Technically, when the leaves turn, the trees begin the process of “winter hardening.”
As most people who remember their basic biology know, the green color in the leaves during the summer is the chlorophyll, which produces food for the tree through photosynthesis.
“When a tree winter hardens, a concentrate of sugars build up so it won’t freeze,” Roper said.
When that process begins, the chlorophyll drains out of the leaves and into the wood. That turns the leaves yellow, red or orange, depending on the species of the tree.
Interestingly enough, in aspens, if a freeze happens before the tree had a chance to winter harden, the trunk of the tree cracks from the cold blow, Roper said.
Once winter hardening is complete, the tree goes into a dormant phase to sustain itself through the winter.
“They store energy in the roots and trunks,” Roper said.
One misnomer with the change in the leaves is that cold weather is what stimulates the phenomenon. Roper explained that it’s more likely that the change in the duration of daylight in each day getting less in the fall is the cue for the trees to begin winter hardening, not the cold weather. That doesn’t mean all the trees turn at the same time. In aspen trees, when a patch turns at a different time, it’s an indication of the origins of the trees.
Aspens multiply by cloning through a root system. In a stand of aspen, there can be numerous sets of cloned trees. When a patch of trees turns to a fall color at a different time than surrounding trees, it’s likely those trees are cloned from the same tree, Roper said.
Once winter hardening is complete, the trees pinch off the leaves and eventually the branch becomes bare for the winter.
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