Nature’s Favorites

by Jim Eagleman

Mention Brown County, Indiana to a Midwesterner and thoughts of fall colors, piles of pumpkins, bittersweet, and busy fall shoppers come to mind. While we’re “open all year” and play host to the many visitors that come, shop owners, merchants, and hoteliers anticipate autumn as their best season. Websites promote our fall beauty. Local artisans, crafts people, food managers, and musicians are noted as top-notch. This world-renowned reputation for our county is well documented. To many it’s not the fall of the year until an annual pilgrimage to the Hills o’ Brown.

While our repeat visitors continue to enjoy the sites, I often wonder how the first-time visitor reacts to this beautiful place. Were their anticipations fulfilled? What did they enjoy most? What can we do to keep them returning?

Hopefully they enjoyed a spectacular display of our example of the Midwest’s temperate forest. As a backdrop or centerpiece, our forested hills can’t be ignored. At a time of year when even the most indifferent visitor looks up and takes notice, we stand before our Brown County vistas and say, “Check it out! Have you ever seen such great reds, yellows, and oranges?”

The size of Indiana forest that produces these colors has changed a lot over the years. “During pre-settlement years (prior to 1800) of the 23,227,000 acres in the Hooiser state about 20 million acres (87%) were originally forested. About half the state was covered by forests, dominated by American Beech and Sugar-maple; nearly 30% by some combination of several Oak and Hickory species, with more than 7% of a more mixed forest of Appalachian origin. By 1917 the state’s forested land had shrunk to 1,600,000 acres, (slightly more than 7% of the total area) causing State Forester, Charles C. Deam to predict in 1922 (just 5 years later) that the state would be treeless. Fortunately, Deam was wrong…. “Today, about 4,500,000 acres of Indiana are forested, or nearly 20%,” says Marion Jackson in his popular Hoosier field guide, 101 Trees of Indiana.
The southern Indiana forest is still represented with these and other colorful trees. Tending to occupy preferred habitats, as all living creatures do, trees also occupy specific sites. American Beech and the counterpart Sugar-maple are found on steep slopes in the Brown County woods. On top of ridges, it’s the Oaks (dark brown) and Hickories (pale yellow) that dominate. Both of these plant communities have a corresponding understory of seedlings, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and mosses. The ubiquitous Tulip Poplar with bold yellow color and bell-shaped silhouette stands out on both slopes and ridgetops. The five-pointed leaf of the Sweet Gum tree will show a varied color over its entire surface, appearing almost purple. It grows on bottomlands and flood plains. The Sassafras with its vivid oranges and blood-reds along forest edges cause motorists to slow down and grab the camera.

And there are more: Sumacs, Black Gum, Sycamore, the Ashes, Walnut, Musclewood, Persimmon, several Dogwoods, two Locusts, several Pines, Red Cedar, Black Cherry, Redbud, the Elms, Pawpaw, Witch-hazel, Hackberry, Mulberry, Ironwood, the Birches, Cottonwood, Willow, and Yellowwood. Add the woody shrub layer and the result is a very rich, diverse, and varied vegetative scheme. To some botanists, these woods nearly rival the complexity of tropical rain forests. No wonder with each tree reacting to the changing conditions of fall (cooler temperatures and shortening photo-period), we get such spectacular fall color in Brown County. As a fellow plant lover says, “Fall is THE time to be a tree…” and adds, “but what a crummy time to be a pine tree.”

Want to learn more about our Brown County woods? It has an interesting history. Its uses are known to all lumber businesses—they’ve placed Hoosier timber as a world leader. And there are rare trees here, too. Come to the Nature Center or pull up our schedule at <> and click on Brown County State Park for our monthly calendar. Through October, interpretive programs will be offered on a variety of fall topics, with fall colors highlighted. Brown County is a great place to be this fall.

Enjoy your visit, and remember we’re here year-round. As my friend says, “Fall ain’t all.” Come back and see the changes.