Darrell Blackwelder: True hue: Trees are showing fall colors

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 21, 2023

My wife, Gerrie and I were driving through the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia last week and we had the opportunity to observe a vast array of beautiful fall leaf colors. Some of the trees were in full color while others were gradually turning bright colors of yellow, red and orange. It was a beautiful show.

These bright colors we all observe in fall foliage are a part of different species of tree leaves. Leaves have color other than green all year long. The bright, vibrant colors are masked in the leaves under green pigment or chlorophyl. In the late summer and early fall, chlorophyl gradually disappears allowing these hidden colors to come alive.

What can be fascinating is that some years the autumn fall leaf color are much brighter and more colorful than other years. The colorful display of color is dependent on temperature and day length during the summer. Cool summer nights, bright, sunny days and abundant rainfall are perfect conditions for bright fall leaf colors. Areas up north such as New England and Canada will always have beautiful fall color.

Delays in summer color or leaves that have little or no color can be attributed to extended summer temperatures going into the fall. Shorter day lengths and cooler fall temperatures as we are now experiencing, provide a signal in trees to produce less chlorophyl (green color pigment) therefore exposing its “true color.”

Mid-October is the peak time to enjoy the fall foliage landscapes of the Western North Carolina and the Virginia mountains. Elevations in the Appalachian Mountains and other mountain ranges of 4,000-5,000 feet provides a show of many colors from hickory, sourwood, maple and oak.  Take some time take for a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway and enjoy the beautiful fall leaf color.

Darrell Blackwelder is the retired horticulture agent and director with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County. Contact him at deblackw@ncsu.edu.