True Colors

This year’s fall foliage gets very high marks for intensity, variety and duration of color.

No late tropical storms have blown away the leaves just at their prime. No persistent droughts or drowning floods have afflicted the southern mountains to disappoint piedmont leaf-peepers with a view of bare branches or bland vistas for their efforts to reach the Blue Ridge Parkway.

But the prize, to my mind, goes to the oaks this year. They have delayed the rich browns to dwell in the reds for far longer than is usual. [My personal every-year favorite in our woods is the beech, pictured here, click to enlarge.]

But why? What factors influence the timing and the colors that autumn offers?

Some of that is know, some is not.

Some of that can be answered for today, but not for the autumns to come in our children’s lifetimes as the planet seems sure to warm by more than five degrees as we debate need to act.

Understanding the reds I speak of is a matter of knowing about anthocyanins, since that pigment is present in those red-change deciduous plants like like smooth sumac, maples, and this year, oaks.

But why do plants that go red bother, when shortly thereafter they will just jettison those lovely scarlet leaves to decay below?

There are theories. We don’t really know fully why we’re seeing what we’re seeing out our Floyd County windows this morning. And we don’t know that the view will always be the same in autumns to come.

If you’re interested in reading more, here are some pointers.

► Why Leaves Turn Red in Autumn. The Role of Anthocyanins in Senescing Leaves of Red-Osier Dogwood [scholarly-geeky]

► Saupe: Why turn them red when leaves will be leaving? 

► Is this the end of autumn as we know it?  | Visit Colorado



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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. If yellow is your favorite fall color, like your beech, you must travel west to see the aspens and cottonwoods. Red is very rare in the Southwest, but yellow is everywhere, and very intense.