Falling for Color

Each year, leaves change colors and create beautiful scenery, but why are trees in some regions prettier and more vivid than the same trees in another region? “Numerous factors including geography, growth habits, exposure to light, plant pigments, and weather conditions all play important roles in the fascinating process,” says Jim Skiera, associate executive director of the International Society of Arboriculture.

Only a few places in the world have the combination of tree species and climatic conditions necessary for vivid autumn foliage. Deciduous forests and trees, with their many broad leaves that change color almost in unison, display the most noticeable autumn colors. Evergreen species also display changes in color, just slowly and gradually.

The best locations with deciduous trees and favorable conditions for brilliant autumn colors are: the eastern United States; southeastern Canada; scattered mountainous locations in western North America; and Seattle, Portland and San Francisco surrounding areas.

Creating color
A chain reaction occurs when sunlight strikes the pigment in leaves, allowing us to see various leaf colors throughout the year. Four broad categories of pigment play a crucial role in autumn beauty: chlorophylls, carotenoids, anthocyanins and tannins.

During the spring and summer, leaves are the principal site for the photosynthetic process that transforms carbon dioxide and water into the carbohydrates that fuel tree growth. This food-making process takes place in numerous cells containing chlorophyll, the pigment that gives leaves their green color.

As days shorten and temperatures cool in autumn, the synthesis of new chlorophyll drops off, green color disappears, and the rate of photosynthesis declines. Trees become frugal and more efficient, pulling nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus into twigs and branches for winter storage, further enhancing the loss of chlorophyll.

Along with chlorophyll, leaves contain yellow or orange carotenoid, the same pigment that gives carrots their familiar color. Masked for most of the year by chlorophyll, the carotenoids reveal themselves in autumn, most noticeable as yellows and golds in tree species such as Norway maples, Ohio buckeyes, sycamores, birches and hickories. For example, the golden yellows seen in beech leaves result from the presence of tannins and carotenoid pigments.

The vivid pink, red, and purple leaves seen on maples, sassafras, sumacs, white and scarlet oaks, and many other woody plants are formed by reactions between various sugars and complex compounds called anthocyanins. A mixture of red anthocyanin pigment and yellow carotene often results in the bright orange color seen in some species of maples.

Fast Facts: Autumn Colors

  • Fertile soil enhances the intensity of reds in leaves.
  • The more light a leaf is exposed to, the more likely it is to turn red.
  • Weather conditions most favorable to brilliant color are warm sunny days followed by cool nights with temperatures below 45 degrees (not to freezing levels).
  • Rainy or cloudy days near peak coloration time will dampen the intensity of autumn color by limiting photosynthesis.
  • Freezing temperatures and heavy frost can kill the brilliance of autumn color by severely injuring leaves before pigments are fully developed.
  • Source: International Society of Arboriculture. For more information, contact a local ISA certified arborist or visit www.treesaregood.org.

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