“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”– Albert Camus
I’ve always loved fall. But this year has been special. After nearly 15 years living in the vibrant city of Barcelona, we’re spending one year in rural Indiana. One big motivation for this move was seeking contrast. One of the anticipated differences: four seasons.
Growing up in Indiana, I was surrounded by these beautiful leaves every year. But while I remembered the beauty, I’d forgotten the experience. The vividness and variety of colors, the unrushed flight path of a falling leaf, the yellow and red blankets covering people’s yards.
So for the past month, I’ve been walking my kids to school, then wandering the streets marveling at the colors that I knew wouldn’t last long. The first few days I couldn’t help myself from bringing a fistful of bright leaves home with me.
I wanted a way to hold onto these colors, this symbol of change that seemed to characterize this past year of our lives. The question was how.
How can I preserve these fall leaf colors?
I recruited my kids to help. One thing my we’ve started experimenting with over the past year are collages. So we got some flat canvases and decoupage glue and went to work.
We started with the contrast of red and yellow, and came up with these:
The concept was okay, but once they dried the colors didn’t remain as striking as I’d hoped.
On our next attempt, we started on a bigger canvas in anticipation of the variety and colors we hoped to freeze in time.
As we filled the canvas, one of my kids suggested that we make a trunk in the middle, so it looked liked the leaves were growing off a tree. Brilliant, I thought. But how do we do that? The Sycamore tree bark by the Pendleton Falls fit the bill. Here’s what we came up with:
I thought I was done. But as my morning walks continued, along with the awe and gratitude, so did my leaf hoarding habit. There were days where it looked like an actual tree was shedding on my study floor.
Those leaves went on to fill other canvases, and some were turned into Christmas ornaments (see below). Not everything we tried turned out as hoped. But here’s a few more examples at various stages in our leaf playground:
Below we’ll see where all these colors come from. But first a little how-to, if you want to try your own.
How to make a decoupage leaf collage
Making your own is easier than you’d think. It just takes open eyes, a willingness to experiment, and the following things:
- A bunch of beautiful leaves
- Canvas or other surface
- Decoupage glue (like Mod Podge)
- Foam brush
- Big old book
- Latex gloves (optional)
- Cup of warm water
- Fresh eyes
Okay, let’s put those to use. Just four steps.
1. Enjoy collecting your leaves
This is the most important step. You can buy canvases and glue in any craft store, but the leaves are uniquely yours.
Pick a park or a neighborhood where you’ve seen some beautiful trees, and just stroll. Notice the different types of leaves, and the variation within a species. Go with whatever catches your eye. Cherish the imperfections.
Tip: Collecting great leaves starts with having eyes wide open. Look up, look down. Don’t rush.
2. Flatten as needed
Many leaves start to curl soon after they move indoors. To keep them flat, or flatten the curlies, put them between the pages of a large book. This also helps to pull the moisture from fresher leaves. I also put some extra weight on the books to really smash them down.
Once you pull them out of the book, many will start to curl up again. So plan to use them soon after retrieving them from the book.
Tip: Don’t feel that you need to flatten them all. Adding some slightly curled up leaves to your collage adds character. They do break easily though, so be gentle.
3. Wipe it and stick it
It’s time to glue. I use the Mod Podge matte glue picture above. It’s so easy to work with, and it always dries clear. This glue easily peels off your hands with a little rubbing or warm water. I often rest the leaves in my hand to glue them, and for this a latex glove comes in handy.
With a foam brush, spread some glue on the bottom of the leaf, not too thick. It also helps to spread a thin layer over the board or leaves you are gluing to. This is especially helpful when adding new leaves to an already-dry layer.
Once they’re stuck down, spread another layer of glue over the top to help preserve the leaves and seal in the color. Sometimes rubbing a wet finger over the glue helps to smooth things out.
Here’s a quick video of the sticking in action. If only I could work this fast in real life.
Tip: Glue within a day or two of collecting. The leaves get brittle and the color fades fast.
Oh, and that warm water I mentioned? You don’t need to put the brushes in water often, but if they’re unused for too long they get crusty without water.
4. Wait. Look. Adjust if needed.
Once the glue dries, the colors and shapes change. So expect to go over what you’ve done to touch up. Sometimes it’s nice to add an embellishment, like a slightly curled up leaf.
Tip: Experiment. Play. Have fun. It’s pretty much that simple.
Making Christmas tree ornaments with leaves
With the leftover leaves I also made ornaments for the Christmas tree. Much easier than the collage, and they look pretty nice.
- Put that glove back on.
- Spread the same Mod Podge glue on one leaf side, then the other. Smooth the glue.
- Set the leaf down to dry where it won’t stick to the surface it’s touching.
Tip: Tape the stems somewhere so the leaf dangles in the air.
- Poke a small hole at the top of the leaf. Be careful not to tear through it. Thread it up.
- Hang on tree.
That’s all there is to it. But there’s a lot more going on inside.
What are these fall leaf colors anyway?
The color we see has to do with the way light bounces off a leaf’s surface. Different molecules absorb and reflect specific wavelengths of light. So the colors we see depend on the predominant molecules in the leaf. And the colors change when the surface chemicals shift.
Green is caused by chlorophyll. Chlorophyll absorbs red and blue light from the sun, and kicks the green light back out to our eyes. It then converts the captured light energy into chemical energy, and mixes with water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2) to make plant food. Remember learning about photosynthesis in school?
As it gets cold, the chlorophyll breaks down, giving other molecules a chance to shine.
Yellow comes from xanthophyll. It’s actually in the leaves all year-round, it’s just overshadowed by chlorophyll. But when they chlorophyll goes on winter break, the yellow from the xanthophyll takes over. So leaves don’t actually change to yellow, they stop being so green.
Orange comes from carotene. Yes, it’s where carrots get their name. Carotenes are also in the leaves all year, and get their moment when chlorophyll goes into hibernation.
Red comes from anthocyanin. Unlike the other colors, anthocyanin isn’t ever-present in the leaves. Instead it’s a byproduct of the chlorophyll breaking down.
Leaves are the powerhouse of plants. They help us breath, and they’re a lot of fun to jump in when they fall. Thanks leaves.
→ To show my appreciation, I recorded a rather ridiculous but true 60-second ode to the leaf pile.
Awareness through contrast
After weeks of leaf gazing, and a couple bottles of glue, I started questioning my experience. Were the leaves more beautiful than usual this year? Or had I just forgotten the experience after being away from this season for so long?
Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s not a forgotten experience, but a new experience entirely.
When you grow up in an environment, that’s what you learn. It becomes familiar. It becomes normal. It may be beautiful, but it’s not special.
But when you leave the familiar, then come back, it’s like being granted a new set of eyes. Sometimes it takes contrast to become aware of what’s right in front of you.
When the next fall rolls around, you can try to capture it through photos, stories, or leaf collages. Or you can just appreciate change as it takes its course.
Whatever you do, don’t miss it.