October 8, 2008
By Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education
Every autumn we revel in the beauty of the fall colors. The mixture of red, purple, orange and yellow is the result of chemical processes that take place in the tree as the seasons change from summer to winter. During the spring and summer the leaves have served as factories where most of the foods necessary for the tree's growth are manufactured. This foodmaking process takes place in the leaf in numerous cells containing chlorophyll, which gives the leaf its green color. This extraordinary chemical absorbs from sunlight the energy that is used in transforming carbon dioxide and water to carbohydrates, such as sugars and starch. Along with the green pigment are yellow to orange pigments, carotenes and xanthophyll pigments which, for example, give the orange color to a carrot. Most of the year these colors are masked by great amounts of green coloring.
Chlorophyll Breaks Down
In the fall, because of changes in the length of daylight and changes in temperature, the leaves stop their foodmaking process. The chlorophyll breaks down, the green color disappears, and the yellow to orange colors become visible and give the leaves part of their fall splendor.
At the same time other chemical changes may occur, which form additional colors through the development of red anthocyanin pigments. Some mixtures give rise to the reddish and purplish fall colors of trees such as dogwoods and sumacs, while others give the sugar maple its brilliant orange.
The autumn foliage of some trees show only yellow colors. Others, like many oaks, display mostly browns. All these colors are due to the mixing of varying amounts of the chlorophyll residue and other pigments in the leaf during the fall season.
Other Changes Take Place
As the fall colors appear, other changes are taking place. At the point where the stem of the leaf is attached to the tree, a special layer of cells develops and gradually severs the tissues that support the leaf. At the same time, the tree seals the cut, so that when the leaf is finally blown off by the wind or falls from its own weight, it leaves behind a leaf sear. Most of the broad-leaved trees in the North shed their leaves in the fall. However, the dead brown leaves of the oaks and a few other species may stay on the tree until growth starts again in the spring. In the South, where the winters are mild, some of the broad-leaved trees are evergreen; the leaves stay on the trees during winter and keep their green color.
Weather Affects Color Intensity
Temperature, light, and water supply have an influence on the degree and the duration of fall color. Low temperatures above freezing will favor anthocyanin formation producing bright reds in maples. However, early frost will weaken the brilliant red color. Rainy and/or overcast days tend to increase the intensity of fall colors. The best time to enjoy the autumn color would be on a clear, dry, and cool (not freezing) day.
Enjoy the color; it only occurs for a brief period each fall.
Nature Watch is brought to you by the Cable Natural History Museum. For 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M or on the web at http://www.cablemuseum.org/ to learn more about exhibits and programs.