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The importance of leaves

By Mark Martin

City of Salisbury Arborist

SALISBURY — It may not seem like it, but fall is here. I have heard it called autumn but I think fall, so named for the time of year when leaves fall off the trees, sounds better.

It has been loosely estimated that $1 billion is spent in North Carolina between September and November on leaf tourism alone and over $30 billion along the East Coast.

It can be a lot of work getting up those leaves or cleaning out the gutters, but let me assure you, it’s a gold mine. I don’t have any real dollar numbers for the landscape industries or homeowners’ cost associated with fall leaf clean up, but I bet it’s close to or exceeds the tourism numbers.

I also don’t have any dollar numbers on how much trees save us on cooling costs, storm water reduction and keeping the air clean but, again, I bet it’s a lot. It’s also a fact that wildlife and insects depend on leaves for food and shelter and humans like fruit, nuts and oxygen.

So let’s start at the beginning — if the leaf was compared to the human body, it might be the mouth, lungs and stomach. Leaves take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen. Photosynthesis allows leaves to make food for the tree; when leaves fall, they decompose and become mulch and fertilizer.

Why do leaves lose their green color in the fall? Length of the days and changes in temperature cause chlorophyll to break down in leaves, revealing other colors that have always been there.

Some trees like oaks, beech, hornbeams and willows, may hold their leaves throughout the winter months and this is called “marcescence.” Reasons vary why this happens but it may offer some health advantages to these species of trees.

What to do with all those leaves? Well, of course, you can rake and blow them into piles and they are fun to jump in. Some people decorate with them. You could burn them (can be unsafe, please use caution), mulch them for use around the garden and of course enjoy the colors of fall.

In my lifetime I have had the opportunity to travel to states and countries with little or no tree canopy. I always feel a heartfelt relief when I come home to trees and their leaves. I truly believe that trees make us feel better and that’s hard to put a price on.

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