Like many residents of Delhi-National Capital Region, dawn breaks for me with a brisk walk in the neighbourhood park. These days I soldier on with a gas mask. There is grit on my tongue and the leaves of the trees are a uniform shade of dust – nothing dulls a leaf as much as air pollution.

I look at the pictures clicked by a school friend during her morning walks in Canada with a pang of envy mingled with wonder. October-November is the time for the celebrated fall foliage, and the leaves are far from colourless.

It is no wonder that Canada chose the autumnal maple leaf on its flag. The colours look almost too brilliant – crimson, saffron, purple and gold, like an artist’s palette – and the landscape is heightened as though on some hallucinogen.

There is an entire tourist season built around North America’s autumn, with chair lifts for overviews, aerial mapping of the best colours that year, and hiking trails for photographers. It’s encouraging to see tourism inspired by flora, especially linked to seasons such as the ongoing cherry blossom festival in Shillong, or the blue shrub Nilikurinji in the Nilgiris that flowers once in 12 years.

Fall foliage, Canada. Photo credit: Monica Jain

Nostalgia and longing

Something about the tint and palmate shape of the deep red sugar maple leaf evokes a sense of nostalgia for a picturesque Srinagar autumn. It’s been some years since I admired the chinars of Naseem Bagh in the Valley, but walking amongst those impressive giants, beloved of the Emperor Akbar and also the Dogra kings, is an experience that cannot be forgotten. Harud made spectacular by the chinar, more beautiful to some than Sonth or springtime with its almond blossoms and tulips.

However closely the Canadian maple and the Kashmiri chinar leaves resemble each other, their botanical roots are not the same. The chinar belongs to the family Platanus Orientalis or the oriental plane tree that originates in Iran, Turkey and parts of Greece. The seeds of the chinar were brought in carpetbags by Central Asian traders and mystics travelling over land.

Thousands of trees were planted and protected, acquiring massive girth. Supposedly, when the Mughals first entered the Valley they spied an autumnal grove from a distance and asked “Chee nar ast?” or what fire is that? The name stuck. This fire analogy is popular in Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah’s autobiography draws its title from a quotation by the poet Iqbal, Aatish e Chinar or flame of chinar.

Maple leaves resemble our Kashmiri Chinar, but belong to a different genus. Photo credit: Monica Jain

Secret life of leaves

Why do the leaves of temperate forests take on such brilliant hues before winter? Nature’s grand shroud of red and gold before all the colours are leached away with the first snowfall, has to do with the relationship between the leaf pigment carotenoid present in deciduous trees such as poplar, maple, ash and the green chlorophyll which masks it.

As days grow shorter towards winter, the green of the chlorophyll is reduced and breaks down, revealing underlying shades of gold, orange and yellow in the carotenoids and xanthophylls. Important in plant metabolism, these also give their colour to vegetables like carrots and corn.

Richer, deeper shades – red, maroon, purple and magenta – are caused by the anthocyanins, which are present in leaves towards the end of summer, and are due to the synthesis of sugars present naturally in the sap. Both day- and night-time temperatures as well as the intensity of natural light are contributory factors in determining the depth of colour. Studies linked to air pollution have shown that high levels of CO2 in the air also impact leaf pigments severely, turning them a muddy shade.

Photo credit: Monica Jain

Sadly, the chinar has not been planted extensively outside of Kashmir, in other Himalayan hill stations. Shimla has a number of horse chestnut trees as well as the gingko bilboa – both of these turn a pleasing yellow in autumn, but lack the drama of the chinar’s changing foliage.

One large specimen of chinar still survives at Delhi’s Nizamuddin Dargah today, and more could easily be planted along the huge Himalayan swathe of mountain hamlets, several of whose hillsides have become denuded.

Other less ambitious solutions to fight the deforestation of the hills would be to plant large numbers of dogwood trees, which thrive in varied soil conditions and are drought tolerant, like the flame-leaf sumac. Both of these turn scarlet in fall and are covered in blossoms in spring, adding much to the beauty of a landscape.

A century ago, Japan gifted 3,000 cherry trees to Washington DC – the goodwill is renewed each year when the trees in Washington are misted in pink blossoms. Why don’t more countries gift trees to each other?

Leaves of the Red Sumac, a drought resistant tree. Photo credit: Monica Jain

Chameleons in the soil

Most urban gardens in India are too hot and cramped to allow for the luxury of temperate plantation. However, if intrigued by colour-changing botanicals, it is possible to introduce shrubs whose flowers change colour with time.

I have several such flowers in my garden and recommend a plant named “Yesterday Today and Tomorrow” or Brunfelsia Pauciflora. As its name indicates, the flowers morph from rich purple to mauve to white over a span of three days, due to the rapid degradation of anthocyanins. As this variegated transformation takes place the shrub has three different shades of flowers at one time. It does best in slightly acidic soil, and has poisonous berries which should not be ingested.

The Hibiscus Mutabilis is quick to mutate and also deepens from snow white to deep pink over a span of 24 hours. It is extremely easy to grow but does attract aphids.

The Quisquisalis Indica or Madhu Malati (both single and double varieties) changes from white to watermelon pink and has a longer time span. Tamil Nadu’s state flower, the summer tuber called Gloriosa Lily is crinkly and exotic; some of its varieties change from lime green to red over the course of flowering. All these colour changes are due to anthocyanins and the PH level present in the flower.

For those in hill stations, the French Hydrangea does not change colour normally but is extremely susceptible to the PH level present in the soil. So if the flowers are blue one year, the bored gardener can change them to pink or mauve the next year, by adding lime to the soil and making it more alkaline.

Madhu Malati, deepens from white to dark pink, single and double both. Author’s garden. Photo credit: Selina Sen

Selina Sen is the author of Gardening in Urban India by DK, Random House, Zoon, and A Mirror Greens In Spring.