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A last hurrah

By Adam Overland

The gourd in all its glory, at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum's "Autumn Unplugged" celebration. U employees are invited to visit the Arboretum free-of-charge from 8 a.m. to sunset on Oct. 10 and 11.

October 7, 2008

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower. --Albert Camus

It would be difficult for me to live in a land that didn't have a full expression of the seasons. Everyone says that, and then we dream of retirement in Florida or Arizona, where change is slow and the seasons are difficult to distinguish. Minnesota has all four in the extreme: the frigid winter; the luscious spring; the sometimes stifling summer; and the explosion of fall--like the last hurrah of a splendid fireworks display before it's time to pack up the celebration and return home (lock the doors, winter is coming). But October is the month to reap the rewards that began to grow in spring, and there are few places better to do so than at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

A (slightly unnerving) scarecrow at the ArboretumA (slightly unnerving) scarecrow at the Arboretum

From 8 a.m. to sunset on October 10 and 11, U employees are invited to visit the Arboretum free-of-charge for a weekend that promises to be the high-point in fall color viewing. October 4 saw the kick-off of the Pumpkin Palooza theme during the Arboretum's aptly named "Autumn Unplugged" extravaganza. More than two-dozen squash and pumpkin varieties abound among the sprawling grounds, some oddly named for their strange characteristics as "One Too Many" testifies, looking like a blood-shot eyeball. It all sounds like a strange music concert for the senses, and it truly is, complete with scarecrows among the concertgoers, wearing overalls and watching the show with gourds for eyes.

This time of year, even the drive to the Arboretum is pleasant. A mere 25 miles southwest of Minneapolis in Chanhassen and packed into 1,000 acres of land are as many varieties of trees, shrubs, and flowers. A person can smell the scented air on the drive down along Highway 5, but that's a mere appetizer for what awaits inside the Arboretum gates. And if you truly are hungry when you arrive, Saturdays and Sundays from the hours of 1 to 3 feature apple tasting, where apples in various stages of development practically beg for discerning palettes to judge them, or even undiscriminating palettes to give them unconditional apple love.

A waterfall at the ArboretumA waterfall at the Arboretum

My own taste of an apple, unnamed but numbered 1942, left me with juice dribbling down my chin and searching for a napkin (though settling for a sleeve). It was a tasty treat, no doubt, and left me wondering if I had just sampled a SweeTango, the new offspring of Honeycrisp and Zestar! Scheduled to hit shelves in 2009, SweeTango nearly bursts in the mouth when bitten, like a taught balloon full of cider and, with a dance both sweet and tart, threatens to usurp the apple throne of its popular parents in a coup de core.

It's no wonder that license plates from Florida to Arizona really do dot the parking lot of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum; people have driven miles to the Midwest, jealous of our autumn. A short trip around the Arboretum on Three-Mile Drive by foot, tram, or car offers fragrant pine and other conifers, poplars and the light applause of cottonwoods in the breeze, crab apples and happy apples, and a hillside of weeping willows and other sad trees that surely suggest the coming of winter. But as the trees snatch the green from their leaves to store food and energy in preparation for the coming months, whatever suggestions of what is to come are set aside for what is here now.

Visitors during the free U weekend will even have time to catch the tail end of Treeology, a tribute to trees, which runs through Oct. 12. For more information including fall color alerts and a complete list of the season's events, visit Autumn Unplugged.

David Bedford of the Arboretum offers these tips when tasting apples:

Pumpkin Palooza at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum opened Oct. 4, and continues through Nov. 2. While the pumpkin display is the centerpiece, Pumpkin Palooza also features a special-event weekend Oct. 25-26 packed with pumpkin-carvers, screenings of the locally produced "Bill's Big Pumpkins" documentary, and "mini-pumpkin head" crafts for children. This is year two for the great pumpkin display, which is made possible through the efforts of University of Minnesota Horticultural Research Center scientist Peter Hemstad and HRC gardener John Thull.

Color: Look for a healthy red hue. More importantly, check the background color, which is typically a pale green or yellowish color. The more yellow the background color is, the riper the apple.

Texture: The preferable texture is hard and crisp. There should be a noticeable "crunch" when you bite into the apple. All apples tend to get "mealy" and soft eventually, but the better apples retain their crispness much longer. Flavor: The best apples contain a high level of sweetness balanced with a high level of tartness. This combination of natural sugar and acid makes the flavor much more interesting.

Apples are in great supply and available for purchase the at the Arboretum AppleHouse market, which is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and located one mile west of the Arboretum at the corner of State Hwy. 5 and Rolling Acres Road.