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Fall Foliage Facts

From weekend travelers to career scientists, the explosion of colors associated with fall foliage is an invitation to get out and see nature. In places like New England’s Mohawk Valley Trail, for example, thousands will take a driving tour through the area just to get a glimpse of some portion of this 63-mile long autumn spectacle.

But what is it that we’re all so curious about? Leaves is the simple answer. Those quiet green shade bearers we take for granted through the lazy days of summer, suddenly conspire one crisp morning to transform into varying shades of red, orange and yellow. If you’re not in the immediate vicinity of the colorful display, you might consider a road trip to enjoy the season. The crisp air, seasonal/regional foods and amazing scenery can make a weekend trip worthwhile.

How do they do it? What are we actually looking at?

Why Leaves Change Color

Nature isn’t showy without a purpose. We’ve all seen nature shows on TV that tell us the reason for some bird’s iridescent breast-feathers or the purpose of a flower’s gaudy petals is to attract a mate or prey. But what about trees whose leaves change colors in the fall? What’s their reason for doing so?

Unfortunately, according to the National Forest Service, there doesn’t appear to be a definitive answer to this question. Maybe this is why so many poets and painters are still drawn to discover their own meanings in this yearly visual ritual. Scientists have, however, analyzed much about both the external and internal changes leaves undergo that result in such amazing transformations.

When Leaves Change Color

Of all the physical factors that change in the fall, none are as drastic as the steady loss of daylight and drop in temperature found in countries in the northern hemisphere, beginning as early as September in some locations. And depending on a variety of factors (listed below) the leaves can remain colorful well into November is some areas. That means there’s still plenty of time to hop into the car, truck or RV and head on a fall foliage road trip to catch nature’s show before it ‘leaves’ town for another year.

While levels of chlorophyll and other chemicals change and react inside of leaves, the most brilliant foliage transformations seem to occur when a particularly warm summer is immediately followed by the much cooler temps and longer nights of autumn. According to Weather.com, weather can affect color intensity: “Temperature, light, and water supply have an influence on the degree and the duration of fall color. Low temperatures above freezing will favor anthocyanin formation, producing bright reds in maples. However, early frost will weaken the brilliant red color. Rainy and/or overcast days tend to increase the intensity of fall colors. The best time to enjoy the autumn color would be on a clear, dry and cool (not freezing) day.”

Trees by Color

The old saying goes: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But when it comes to identifying trees by their colorful leaves, that’s exactly what we’re going to do with these common North American trees:

  • Sugar Maple. The leaves of the sugar maple can go through many color changes throughout the year. First, its leaves can be several different green hues, then they’ll go through a series of yellows and oranges before finally bursting into reds at their peak.
  • Black Tupelo. Interestingly, on one branch of the black tupelo, you can find several different colors of leaves in the fall — including yellow, orange, bright red, scarlet, and purple. Except in the most extreme southern and northern climates, you can find this tree through much of the U.S.
  • Aspen. Many will travel to the Rocky Mountains in autumn to see the unbelievable yellows of the leaves of aspen trees. Standing out sharply from their neighboring pine trees, the aspens are a northern fall tradition.
  • Sourwood. Found more in the southern U.S., the leaves of the sourwood tree will change from a lustrous green to eventually become red, yellow and purple. Also look for the sourwood’s white, fresh-smelling flowers throughout the rest of the year.

With these fall foliage facts, you’ll be better than the guide book on your next family outing or weekend getaway. Of course, if you have plenty of falling foliage around you at your home, make sure to clean your gutters to avoid blockages that could result in damage to your home.

Enjoy nature’s show, as it’s only on display for a few short weeks.

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