Get ready for fall foliage, fall color, or whatever you call Nature’s annual splashing of Southern forests in vivid reds, maroons and yellows. Leaves put on their brightest colors from now through early November, and that means it’s time to get outside and ramble.
Experts say it’s shaping up as a pretty colorful year – about the same as the past few years – and the dry September may have helped, not hurt this year’s color. A report from the Citizen Times of Asheville, N.C., quotes a regional expert revising her fall foliage outlook for the mountains upward. She said wet weather like we’ve had this year mutes leaf color, but dry weather like September’s makes color “pop.”
‘Not too shabby’
In Alabama, regional state naturalist Patti Donnellan said simply “not too shabby” as she looked out her window at fall foliage in Lake Guntersville State Park Tuesday afternoon.
Lake Guntersville State Park’s mountaintop lodge is as scenic as fall gets in Alabama, and Donnellan said low ground cover like sumac is already red. Bigger trees like oaks “don’t have too much going on yet,” she said, but they will start changing quickly across north Alabama beginning next week.
If you want great color this week, you’ll have to drive to western Virginia and eastern West Virginia, according to The Foliage Network, a non-profit website that uses volunteer spotters to report on fall foliage across the eastern United States. Those two areas are the only ones reporting high to peak color this week. Farther south, spotters report low color in eastern and middle Tennessee, low color in western North Carolina, and no color in middle North Carolina.
About that weekend trip: If you’re planning one, state tourism websites in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee are serious about the season. Leaves changing color means big business, and the states will help you find where color is peaking when you’re ready to travel. Alabama’s website has a particularly nice interactive map. Another hint: If you plan to stay overnight near the woods, a reservation is a good idea. It can get crowded out there this time of year.
Why do they change?
Why do leaves change color? Dr. Leland Cseke, an assistant biology professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, says it’s because trees start breaking down their green pigments to store the nitrogen they contain for energy through the winter. The process lets the fall sun light up the other color pigments in the leaves.
How do they know it’s time? Cseke’s specialty is tree nutrient systems, and he said the signal varies for different trees. Some trees sense the changing light as the autumn sun drops lower in the sky. Some trees sense the change in temperature. Some of the process remains mysterious.
That temperature signal to change may be a few days away. The National Weather Service Office in Huntsville is predicting normal or above-above normal temperatures across North Alabama for the next week to 10 days. So, unless something changes, there will no cold snap to get trees moving for at least the next week.