‘Now is a great time to look up’: How to enjoy Philly’s fall foliage, from a tree nerd

Listen 2:01
A Japanese maple tree turned bright red at Morris Arboretum.

A Japanese maple tree turned bright red at Morris Arboretum. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Philadelphia is currently situated in fall’s sweet spot — the temperature has cooled, pumpkin spice has hit coffee shops, and leaves have started to change from lush greens to deep yellows, oranges, and reds.

With all those quintessential autumn vibes in place, now is the perfect time to enjoy the colorful and crisp foliage.

“One of the great things about the fall is that people look up at trees,” said Bryan Thompson-Nowak, the director of education at the Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill.

A self-proclaimed “tree nerd” who loves fall, Thompson-Nowak says this is the time of year people wait for — when the autumn color palette starts to appear. But he wasn’t sure what it was going to look like this season.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
Morris Arboretum Director of Education Bryan Thompson-Nowak examines an enkianthus tree changing in fall.
Morris Arboretum Director of Education Bryan Thompson-Nowak examines an enkianthus tree changing in fall. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“After the drought we had all summer, a lot of us are a little bit nervous,” he shared. Those vibrant seasonal shades only arrive and last only under the right conditions, and that includes the right amount of water.

Rain throughout the entire summer is ideal, but luckily, there were storms these past few weeks.

“That really helped the leaves actually have some color,” Thompson-Nowak explained. “If that drought were to extend, they would have just turned brown and dropped off.”

Fall foliage of an oakleaf hydrangea at Morris Arboretum.
Fall foliage of an oakleaf hydrangea at Morris Arboretum. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Then there’s the looming fear of frost.

But so far, temperatures have worked in fall’s favor. This means that depending on the tree, Philly will have several weeks of “great color,” according to Thompson-Nowak.

Philly is still within that precious window, so if you have an affinity for fall and its majestic colors, here are some tips from Thompson-Nowak on how to make the most of the foliage before it’s gone:

Yes, it’s obvious, but get outside

“You can experience the outdoors almost anywhere in Philly,” says Thompson-Nowak. From small neighborhood parks to larger gardens and arboretums, the city is full of outdoor spaces perfect to take in the autumnal views. “You don’t have to drive or go too far.”

Fall foliage of a threeflower maple tree at Morris Arboretum.
Fall foliage of a threeflower maple tree at Morris Arboretum. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

There’s Bartram’s Garden in Southwest Philly, John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum near the airport, and Awbury Arboretum in Germantown. The Wissahickon is a popular option this time of year, too.

But you don’t necessarily have to go to these big spaces, Thompson-Nowak emphasized. Any park, from Rittenhouse Square to Norris Square, works if that’s what is near you.

All that’s needed are “some big trees and some big plants” to admire.

Engage all your senses

As a season, fall is very sensory, says Thompson-Nowak.

You can hear the rustling of the leaves. Smell the cool, crisp air (and sometimes, even the trees). Taste all the classic spices like clove and cinnamon. Touch the crumbly leaves.

Leaves crunch underfoot at the Morris Arboretum.
Leaves crunch underfoot at the Morris Arboretum. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

And of course, see the trees transform. Dogwood and Oak trees with curling leaves in various shades of orange, marigold, and burgundy.

Thompson-Nowak recommends engaging with as many senses as you can to connect with the season.

“If you just keep quiet for a minute and you use your senses, it’s a great experience,” he says.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

That’s what volunteer and former arboretum employee, Bob Gutowski, loves about the fall season.

“As far as you can see, it’s trees, it’s plants, it’s sky,” he said. “So this is like an exercise for my eyes and my heart. It’s just beautiful for me.”

Bob Gutowski, a former employee of Morris Arboretum and now volunteer, poses with an amsonia
Bob Gutowski, a former employee of Morris Arboretum and now volunteer, poses with an amsonia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Last but not least, look up!

Thompson-Nowak wants everyone to look up while they’re out and about.

“Now is a great time to look up,” he said.

Mellany Armstrong, the communications coordinator for Morris Arboretum, agrees. There’s so much to see and appreciate.

“It’s like being in a cathedral with stained glass because it’s just so unbelievable,” she expressed about her experience standing beneath an enormous Japanese maple tree in the garden.

“Trees are worth looking up at in the fall,” he said. “A lot of times, we look at eye level, we look 6 to 10 feet up in the air. But keep on looking up,” he says, no matter the season.

You’re guaranteed to see something beautiful.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal