Fall leaf color predicted to be spectacular

Barbara Hootman

September brings talk of what the fall colors will be like this year. Color is the magical transformation of the leaves from mature green to a kaleidoscope of colors, ranging from vibrant reds to golden yellows interspersed by honey browns with combinations of all the earth colors.

Listening to people speculate about the “color” reveals a range of opinions. Some say fall colors will be early and maybe not as good as last year. Some believe they might be better. But nearly everyone says it will always be beautiful in the Western North Carolina mountains.

Kathy Mathews is Western Carolina University’s fall season predictor. Every year she predicts how foliage around the mountains will perform in the last days of summer and early fall. An associate professor of biology at WCU, she specializing in plant systematics and bases her color forecast partially on weather conditions the region had from spring to fall.

Mathews thinks the drier than usual spring and summer will make this year’s fall leaf colors in WNC more spectacular than they have been in many years.

The formation of higher levels of pigments in the leaves correlates with dry weather throughout the year, but especially as fall rattles summer’s gate.

Dry weather is what will produce the vibrancy of the colors this year, she said. During dry weather, sugar concentration increases in leaves and contributes to the color changes.

“It is also because the trees aren’t taking up as much water through their roots,” Mathews said. “The abundance of sugars leads to the production of more anthocyanins, the red pigments that appear when green chlorophyll recedes. That is what causes leaf colors to really pop along with the simultaneous appearance of orange and yellow pigments on the same or different tree species.”

Peaking color depends on elevation and decreasing amounts of sunlight, Mathews said. At the highest elevation, above 4,000 feet, it often arrives during the first and second week of October, she said. In the mid elevation - 2,500 to 3,500 feet - it happens during the third week of October.

When the leaves begin to change, fall moves down the mountains in waves of color.

Most people agree that after the first frost, leaf color seems to be at its best. There should be beautiful color in WNC from late September into November this year.

As with the rest of the Appalachian Mountains, the Blue Ridge has one of the most colorful and longest-running fall leaf seasons in the world, because of its vast variety of deciduous trees and varying elevations.

The Blue Ridge Parkway Guide to leaf color lists Oct. 2-10 as peak color time for areas above 5,000 feet. For areas above 4,000 feet, it’s Oct. 10-17. It’s Oct. 17-24 for 3,000-4,000 feet, and Oct. 24-29 for elevations 2,000-3000 feet. Late October into early November brings the fall winds that end leaf turning season.

Specific tree species have particular fall colors:

  • Oaks are red, brown or a combination of the two.
  • Hickories are golden bronze.
  • Dogwood are purplish red.
  • Beech are light tan.
  • Sourwood and black tupelo are crimson.
  • Red Maples turn brilliant scarlet.
  • Sugar Maples are orange-red.
  • Black Maples are yellow.
  • Elms are brown.

Cindy Medlock, retired forest ranger with some 30 years experience, predicts fall will arrive a little early this year.

“We are already seeing spots of color, and the dogwood trees are already turning,” she said. “I think the color will be above average, which is always beautiful in the mountains. Squirrels are everywhere, and they are all eating constantly, which says they are putting on fat for winter already.”

Carlton Burke, a WNC naturalist and field instructor for Muddy Sneakers, said it should be an excellent leaf color season this year.

“There should be pretty good color at most elevations this year,” he said. “Even though some mountain areas have been a bit dry, overall I think we have had enough rain to ensure a good growth of healthy leaves through the spring and summer.

“Barring any windstorms, hurricanes, early frosts or freezes, I think it will be an excellent color season. If things stay a bit on the dry side through September, we may have some early color change. But I think the intensity of the colors will be very good.”