LEAF PEEPERS! The first time I heard the term was from my husband, who was at that time working for British Airways. My imagination offered up an image of leaf peepers hiding in a clump of bushes spying on picnickers, or perhaps a tiny bug with large white eyes.

AS HE'S PRONE to exaggeration, I replied, "You mean you get some people from England to come and see the leaves change." "Well, yeah," he replied, "but a lot more than that. I'm talking two-thirds of British Airways' Economy passengers for over a month, and not just from England. We get them from all over Europe, and so do Lufthansa, Al Italia, Finn Air, Iceland Air, all of them!" I still wasn't buying it, not completely, anyway. It couldn't be just for the coloring. There had to be more to it than that.

Lake Katherine, New Hampshire, mid-October 2008.

"LOOK," said my husband, weary now, not only from 10 hours on his feet at the airport but also from my disbelief, "they come out of Customs and pile into tour buses, three or four buses at a time. They begin a tour up in Maine, down through Franconia Notch in New Hampshire, out through Vermont, and back through the Berkshires into western Massachusetts. In a lot of cases they're here for as much as two weeks, and only the last couple of days are here in city of Boston. They actually come to see the leaves die!" My husband, maybe because of his color blindness, has a dim view of our New England fall foliage season.

OVER THE intervening years, I became accustomed to listening to weather forecasts that included foliage predictions bandied about like Super Bowl picks. "This area is at 63% peak right now, while this other mountain range is 72.58% peak." Now I was imagining some hi-tech scanning system by helicopter, or an individual leaf-by-leaf count. How could they be so sure? Whose idea of peak were they talking about, anyway?


WHILE SOME people prefer the mixed views of green, gold, crimson, brown and purples that come early in autumn, wherever you are, others insist on holding out for the bright red sugar maple or the darker red oaks that come later in the season—after most of the trees have lost their leaves, and the view is, according to most, "past peak." There is the majesty of New England mountains—although in other parts of the country the Great Blue Hill that I live next to would be considered a Minor Blue Bump—and the quiet serenity of foliage reflected in water.

THE WEAK dollar overseas makes travel in the United States a bargain, if you live in Europe and already have a passport and some vacation time. But although an extensive internet search failed to reveal the exact origination of the term, leaf peeping is what it's called around here. In Japan, according to a website promoting Japanese cultural activities, it's known as momijigari, and has been practiced since around the 8th century. At first Japanese nobility, and later, all Japanese have taken time or made time to view the changing and ephemeral fleeting fall foliage.

Poison oak, in October, 2008, in California.

THE MACMILLAN English Dictionary, in the October, 2003 issue of their online magazine, put it like this:

"THE UNCOUNTABLE noun leaf peeping was also coined in the early eighties, and ... describes the activity of seeking out places where a large number of trees have adopted their autumnal colours. Trees like the birch, poplar and maple can turn fantastic shades of red, orange and yellow in the autumn, and it is the search for this splendid array of colour which preoccupies the leaf peeper, the term coined for someone who regularly and enthusiastically engages in this activity. There is even evidence for an intransitive verb, to leaf-peep, as in We leaf-peeped along the forest roads ... and a participle adjective leaf-peeping, as in, for instance, leaf-peeping spots.

"THE PHENOMENON of leaf peeping is big business in the United States, contributing significantly to the economy of areas like New England, where throngs of leaf peepers set

Fox River, Illinois, early October 2008.

out every autumn by car and bus."

Have I piqued your interest in "peak"?

ALTHOUGH it may (or may not) have originated in New England, taking time out to appreciate fall foliage is an inexpensive activity that can be enjoyed everywhere, no matter what climate or day of the season. As gardeners, we are closely tuned into changes in the out-of-doors. We can appreciate the beauty nature provides for us, whether that means Virginia creeper and poison oak in the back lot turning red in the autumn or brilliant multicolored mountainsides.

IT SHOULD not be presumed that leaves can only be spotted in the Northeast part of the United States, however. Any deciduous forest will experience a change in color as it experiences the withdrawal of chlorophyll from the leaves prior to leaf drop. Fantastic sights are apparently available in the mountains and on the fields and hillsides of Arizona, West Virginia, Utah, and Georgia, and please don't be offended if I left out your state!

A Georgia back yard in October, 2008

SO, YES, leaf peepers are out there, and by now they are moving south and west. There is no need to fear them; you may be one yourself! Leaf peepers range from busloads of Japanese tourists taking advantage of the strengthened yen to Dave's Garden members and subscribers out in their backyards, back lots and back roads with their cameras, sketch pads, or just their ever-alert eyes and noses. Enjoy this season.

Treasure Box - Discovery of Japan

This website discusses many aspects of Japanese culture in English, not Japanese, and so was very helpful.

DRIVING; Leaf Peeping Goes High Tech

New York Times

Published: October 10, 2003

Discussion of "peak", its elusive quality, and using internet websites to track foliage changing.

Thank you to nutsfordaylily, bigcityal, Harmonyplace and Kelli for graciously allowing me to use their stunning photographs. The green leaf peeper was created by my husband.

(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 1, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions or comments.)