Summer days are gone too soon. Autumn equinox isn’t until September 22, but for the last week or more the weather has been sending all kinds of fall signals. Personally, it felt like summer didn’t last very long. I do love fall, it’s just that my cantaloupes have struggled to ripen over this very mild summer. Enough whining, time to embrace pumpkin, apple, and cinnamon flavored things; pull out the boots, scarves, and various plaid items; get pumped for football, volleyball (if you have a family of girls), and homecoming; and go for a fall color drive or ten.
Now, don’t be embarrassed if the elementary question “why do leaves change color” befuddles you. I’m sure at one point we all learned about the phenomenon, especially since color change is such a celebrated fall event in our region. As a science major, I have a general idea of what color change entails, but if you asked me without research I wouldn’t be able to give you a very scholarly answer.
Chlorophyll, Carotenoids, and Anthocyanins. These are our color producing elements, and most are probably familiar with chlorophyll. Carotenoids and anthocyanins produce colors other than green. In the fall, similar to people of the northern states, energy production slows down. The longer, cooler evenings slow down chlorophyll production until it stops all together. This is when the other two elements are unmasked. Much like we unmask our various plaid and flannel items in the cooler months. As I mentioned before, carotenoids and anthocyanins do not produce green color–they produce a myriad of exciting “warm” colors (you may remember from art class, or home make-over shows). Certain tree species’ elements produce different colors:
- Oak: brown, red, or russet
- Aspen/Poplar : yellow
- Dogwood: purplish-red
- Beech: light-tan (kind of like beaches…is that where the name came from?)
Maples are the most colorful; therefore areas with a high density of maple trees are highly sought after for fall color tourists. From blazing reds to brilliant oranges and golden yellows, the maple species really wow us and make fall one of the most beautiful seasons. What sets our hardwoods apart? They often grow in close proximity to pines. The contrast between red and green elevate the colors (another lesson from art class, but brought to realization by nature).
Temperature and moisture have a major effect on the intensity and length of colors. The perfect combination: warm, sunny days & cool (but not freezing) nights in succession. Warm, sunny days produce more sugars, and cool nights close the leaf veins so those sugars are unable to escape–like eating too many cinnamon sugar donuts and not exercising (except color change is not what we experience). High sugar + high light= high production of brilliant anthocyanins! AKA, reds, oranges, and purples. Carotenoids are yellows, and are a constant in the leaves, so years where the warm-sunny-day-cool-evening succession is low, the color display will be mostly yellow.
Maybe this information will be forgotten by next fall, but you can at least use it this year to bore your kids or entertain your friends at cocktail hour. The Cadillac area has self-guided fall color routes available in brochures. The district has brochures (we fall under Route 4 Lake City to Manton) and they are available at other various locations, just look for the signs. Staying local is always fun and supportive, but living in the area we may tend to overlook the beauty when we drive these routes everyday. Venturing out during the fall color season can be a great reminder of how amazing our own state is–Virginia, West Virginia, Maine, Vermont…there are so many options. For me, home is where my color tour starts and ends. Happy touring.