It’s Crunch Time!

Top Photo: Fall color (Northwoods, Wisconsin).

What does fall have to offer besides the spectacular annual changing of the leaves—the crunching of them under your feet, that’s what. Few things can compare to swishing around in the thick, fall, leaf liter. But, as much fun as that might be, seeking out and crunching individual leaves is even more pleasing.

Not every leaf is equal though. I’ve found that certain leaves make a very satisfying crunch underfoot while others leave you flat. Everyone has their own particular tastes. One crunch may be pleasing to you, not so pleasing to other crunchers. But regardless of individual preferences, I’ve got a few favorites to share, and a few to avoid, that is, if you’re into leaf crunching.

We don’t have every eastern tree species represented here at the museum, and I haven’t tried all of the species we do have on our 84 acres. But, I tested the ones that you or I are most likely to come in contact with while strolling the outdoor loop through Catch the Wind, Explore the Wild, and the Dinosaur Trail.

But first, leaves from different tree species fall at different times. Some may drop weeks prior to, or after, others. Leaves from the same tree species may be in different states of crunchiness depending upon the local conditions, amount of shade, water, and nutrients in the soil, etc. But wait, there’s no need to get technical, we’re crunching leaves, not numbers.

Here’s a handful of leaves I’ve tested. Some are quite pleasurably crunchy while others have ho-hum crunch-ability.

By the way, to get the full effect, it’s best to crunch the leaves against a hard surface, like macadam, a boardwalk or deck, or a large flat rock. Curled leaves are obviously better than flat leaves. And, of course, they have to be dry. No crunching on or immediately following rainy days.

Despite the mention of crunching individual leaves, I have to say that some of the smaller leaves may tempt you with their curly, crunchy appearance, like the hornbeam or ironwood leaves below.

Looks are deceiving.

Unfortunately, these leaves didn’t do much in the way of crunch when I stepped on them, not worth the effort.

Oaks. As much as these leaves may entice you, I’ve found them to be rather flat in both attitude and sound. Even large concentrations of willow oaks may look crunchable, but I’ve found them lacking.

Red oak may look crunchy, but…the two leaves behind oak leaf offer better crunch.
Another disappointment was willow oak.

Sycamore promises great crunch as they readily curl up when dry. But, they’re not as good as you might think. However, they make a sharp crackle, and if that’s what you want, then have at it.

If you like a sharp crackle, sycamore may be for you.

Tulip poplar, or yellow poplar, is surprisingly satisfying to crunch. They appear to be too flat to produce a pleasing crunch, but the ones I sampled did the job.

Even this flat tulip poplar leaf made a nice crunch.

A cultivated shrub here at the museum is one of my favorites. The leaves stay on the bush longer than many other leaves and they take some time to dry out, but they curl nicely and produce a neat, drawn out crunch when they finally do present themselves. The shrub? oakleaf hydrangea.

Oakleaf hydrangea made a most satisfying sound.
This leaf “screams” crunch. Hydrangea stays on bush longer and dries slower than many other leaves.

Oakleaf hydrangea gets high marks on my list.

Maple is a disappointment. You may find maple appealing, but to me it just kind of softly crinkles with a tinny sound, and quickly fades. They’re great for color, not so good for sound.

These maple leaves made a light tinny sound.

A leaf that may not, on the surface, appear to be very crunchable is sweetgum. But the leaves curl up nicely and dry out well. What I like about them is they’re not too loud and have a respectively even crunch. And, there are lots of them around.

This sweetgum leaf is just waiting to be crunched. Top rated!

Before we go any further, it may be a good idea to discuss methodology, how to properly crunch leaves. At least, my method of crunching leaves.

Don’t just stomp straight down on a leaf. Start the process with your heal down on the substrate, toes in the air. Gently roll your foot forward on top of the leaf. Follow through until you get the whole leaf, or as much as possible, underfoot. The speed at which you do this depends upon personal preference, do you like a slow graduated caaaruuunnnch or a quick carunch?

I prefer a slow, even caaaruuuunch myself. And sweetgum will give you that, if you execute properly.

Start with toes up, heal down. Roll your foot forward.

But the best leaf of all for crunching here at the museum, in my opinion, is from the non-native mimosa. It’s a compound leaf, with hundreds of tiny leaflets. When you step on it, all of those little leaflets release their own soft crunch coalescing into a very pleasing cashhhhhhhhhhhhhsssssssssssss.

Of course, the leaf has to be at the right moisture level. Too moist and you get nothing, too dry and you hear a quick, thin cricckkk. Test out various mimosa leaves and you’ll soon get a feel for which ones will give you the best, most satisfying crunch. I’ve been doing this for years and I still misjudge their readiness every now and then.

By the way, mimosa does’t display fall colors. They sacrifice visual beauty for aural excellence. The leaves go from soft, pliable summer green to brittle, winter brown. They’re at their best just before they go total brown.

Five gold stars for mimosa.
Roll over gently for the best sound.

Another compound leaf which gets good marks is hickory. There are only 5 to 9 leaflets, sometimes as many as 19, which are much larger than mimosa’s tiny leaflets, but you still get that extended crunch that comes with mimosa, though not as subtle. They’re more on the crackle side of crunch, but certainly more than adequate.

Good noises come from compound leaves like this hickory.

Though fall is nearly over, the seasonal leaf drop is still underway. There’s still plenty of crunching to be done, if you feel the need. I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to walk past a dry, curled leaf without giving it the crunch test.

So, what are you waiting for? get out there and start crunching!

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