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I love seeing leaf buds as they are about to burst from branches. Often they emerge in colors that identify a plant, like the yellow-gold of willows. For me buds symbolize the promise of life and timeless renewal, and the introduction of a new gardening season.

We all enjoy the shade of leaves above streets in summer, and the sound of wind rustling through a canopy of leaves, but you might not find leaves an exciting topic for many reasons. For the most part, they are green, although they come in different shades and tints. Many leaves’ shapes come in an uninspired oval, varying only in size. Leaves seem to be more concerned with function than aesthetics; a plain green leaf produces more food than a fancy shaped variegated one. Leaves can cause us work, too. Some leaves, as in lawns, need labor to make them attractive. Others need raking every autumn.

Yet to me, leaves are so much more.

Every leaf is a complicated chemical laboratory and manufacturing site, and the only one known to be capable of taking water, air, and sunlight to make food. We all live off this wonderful ability, because we either eat leaves or animals that eat leaves.

They perform another service. Leaves change carbon dioxide into oxygen and water, helping humidify the air we breathe. Matter of fact, all the breathable free oxygen in our atmosphere comes from leaves. And while they perform this miraculous service, they help clean the air of pollutants.

Inside these little chemical factories, sugar, their main food product, can be changed into starches, protein, oil, and alcohol for consumption or sometimes for fuel. They also produce chemicals that heal us. Many drugs are still based on organic formulas found in leaves.

Some of these chemicals are poisonous, capable of killing rather than feeding or healing. A few poisonings by plant are famous, like Socrates, whose politics forced him to swallow poison hemlock. Instead of using these leaf chemicals to eliminate our fellow man, we now use them as weapons against bacterial agents and insects.

Besides all these attributes, leaves can talk to the gardener, telling them of a plant’s needs before it is too late and the plant dies. If I read the message, I know when your plant needs water, and when there is too much or not enough sun for their liking. If they mature smallish in size with yellow or reddish veins, they are telling me their soil needs an application of nitrogen, a common complaint. If leaves mature twisted and misshapen, the soil might lack zinc, an unusual occurrence. If I know the language, leaves can tell me when they need phosphorus, potassium, calcium, boron, manganese, sulfur or iron. There are garden books that tell everyone how to understand leaf talk.

In our area, where we enjoy leaves that are deciduous, lasting only for the season, they have one more wondrous trick, they tell time. When swelling along the edges of bare winter branches they calculate spring. A full overhead glory of green tells of summer, and the changing of colors says autumn has arrived. When they have all fallen, except for the dried brown leaves showing an oak tree’s stubbornness, I know to turn on the furnace. So watch the leaves and enjoy the gardening season.

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