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When they leave but still won’t go

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A view of trees on Boston Common with many leaves still on trees.

By Globe Staff 

To rake or not to rake? That is the question.

As the end of the year approaches and the days turn shorter and darker, fat bunches of iron-willed leaves are refusing to yield to wind and rain, stubbornly clinging to tree limbs like recalcitrant children holding fast to their parents’ legs.

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If you look up, or if you own a home with a yard, you’ll see them: crusty, brittle, and brown.

“I don’t particularly know what’s going on, but they are hanging in,” said Greg Kaknes, owner of Landscape Express in Roslindale. “They’re just not giving way. And there are still a few types of trees that are fully coated in leaves.”

This year, the balmy weather has scrambled the classic autumn script.

As a result, some tree species, particularly Norway maple, oak, and pear, are “not giving up the ghost in terms of winding up the growing season,” said Richard W. Harper, extension assistant professor of urban forestry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“We’re seeing leaves on trees 10, 20 days longer than normal and, in some cases, even longer than that,” Harper said.

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A scourge to some, a blessing to others, the rebellious foliage has caught the attention of cleanup crews, arborists, and leaf experts accustomed to the last remnants of fall having disappeared by the time Christmas trees are being hauled into living rooms.

Nancy Rose, a horticulturalist and editor of Arnoldia, the quarterly magazine of the Arnold Arboretum, said the abcission process, by which trees snip off their leaves, is triggered by shorter days and colder temperatures.

But this has been Boston’s fifth-warmest fall in 125 years of record-keeping, according to the National Weather Service. October was the second-warmest ever recorded in Boston, with an average temperature of 61.4 degrees, well above the historical average of 54.1 degrees.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Green leaves in December on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston.

That has meant more growing time for trees and more leaves on their branches, Harper said.

“It’s almost like someone slotted an extra two or three weeks into our fall,” he said. “And as long as plants experience conditions conducive to growing, they’re going to try do some of that.”

Rose said a cold snap in early November also froze the cells involved in the abcission process.

“I wouldn’t try to draw climate change into this at all,” she said. “This could happen any year, and it might go years without happening. We have weird temperatures happening in Massachusetts and many states.”

Kaknes said he isn’t complaining because some homeowners who have paid to clean up their yards have had to call again as late-season leaves belatedly surrender to nature’s pull.

“We’re just seeing a lot of opportunities to clean your yard – two, three times,” Kaknes said. “It’s great for my business. The volume has been up significantly in the latter part of November and into December, compared to last year.”

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

Leaf clean-up on Commonwealth Avenue Mall in Boston this week.

To others, the leaves have been only a mild nuisance.

“I go out and look at jobs, and say, ‘We’ll have to wait till later to do the work,’ ” said George Kordan, owner of Will Mow Lawn, in Roslindale and Jamaica Plain. That’s fine, he said, as long as it doesn’t snow and cover over the leaves that have fallen, making them impossible to rake.

(Unfortunately, 4 to 6 inches of snow is expected in most of Eastern and Central Massachusetts this weekend).

Gregory Mosman, the city of Boston’s tree warden, said he hasn’t noticed any more late-season leaves holding fast this year than in past years. “If you could find me a Norway maple with leaves on it, I would be impressed,” he said.

But others insist there are more leaves still up there than usual — and they warn that those leaves could pose a danger because they catch the wind like a sail, making it easier for limbs to snap and down power lines, damage homes, and injure people.

“I cannot stress enough the importance of properly pruning around your house,” said Neal D. Reilly, arborist and owner of Reilly Tree and Landscaping in Plainville. “You see these oak trees that get big and people love the shade, but they are susceptible to breakage.”

But no one should run in panic just yet. After all, they’re only leaves.

“It is nothing to worry about, and has no long-term effect” on the health of the trees, Reilly said. “These, too, will drop, as many did last night. And we’ll be good to go.”

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Deciduous trees in Newton have not lose their leaves yet.


Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@
globe.com

Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.