The palette of autumn colors in western Kansas dazzles me every year. I know some folks think the foliage tours in eastern states reveal the best colors of the season, but I wish they would take a drive across the prairie with me. The colors may not be quite so obvious as the hardwood forests in the East, but anyone with a good eye can detect our subtle hues.
Late rains recently have led to a bumper crop of sunflowers to brighten the roadside ditches. I don’t know that I have ever seen so many blooms or such vibrant plants this time of year. A local photographer must agree because I have seen him out numerous evenings as he snaps senior pictures against the lush backdrop of these flowers along the railroad tracks. Between the majestic sunsets and the flowers, I do not know which is easier on the eye.
Not only did the sunflowers get a boost from those showers. So did the grasses. Many of us have heard the old timers’ stories of the grasses growing as tall as a horse’s belly. This year the big blue stem and the Indian grass would definitely tickle the bellies of buffalo or horses. If this is how the ditches look now, imagine this prairie before section lines and barbwire divided it into parcels. Imagine if we could get a red tail hawk’s view. It would seem that our section line roads stitch together multi-color patches of quilt.
In addition to the grasses growing so tall, they are also colorful and bound to intensify in color before winter snows blanket them. Hints of bluestem’s trademark rust color have already crept up the stem into the native tall grass and mid grass grasses while the tawny hue of the Indian grass heads suggests the color of a lion’s mane. What we at our house call ditch blue stem waves its pale ecru plume like little apostrophes punctuating the ditches and pastures.
Mixed in with the taller grasses one also finds switch grass and other varieties of native and transplanted grasses. Switch grass functions in this natural arrangement like baby’s breath in a store bought bouquet, as a filler. Along with the switch grass, one finds foxtail, side oats grass and brome adding a bit of color and texture to Mother Nature’s arrangements.
While the grasses and forbs feed our eyes at ground level, tree leaves have just begun to succumb to autumn’s magic. As I drive down the road, I note more than a hint of gold and rust among the leaves. Sumac and plum bush leaves have also begun to take on the scarlet coat they wear this time of year. The locust trees show off in brilliant golds and yellows. Mardi Gras costumes could not be more brilliant.
From season to season, as nature’s palette mutates and alters, western Kansans can always count on a backdrop of beautiful skies ranging from robin’s egg blue to gun barrel gray. I have wondered from time to time if it is not the backdrop of sky color that sets off our grasses and trees so effectively. Perhaps it is the clearness of aridity that sharpens the eye’s perception. Regardless of the reason, our eyes are treated to rich and varied vistas.
The screaming orange and burning scarlet of New England may elude our view, but we will not miss them if we take a trip down a country road to enjoy our own show of color. Between sky and earth, western Kansans have plentiful opportunities to enjoy autumn’s riches. I haven’t even mentioned the glory of milo fields and other fall crops. That is another article.