Leelanau News and Events

Why Is Leelanau's Fall Color So Spectacular This Year? (An Expert Explains)

By Emily Tyra | Oct. 23, 2020

Word on the street — and out in the woods — across our coverage area is that 2020 has revealed the most beautiful, vibrant, lasting fall color in memory. Maybe in a lifetime. Can this be true? The Leelanau Ticker checked in with Kama Ross, District Forester for the Leelanau, Grand Traverse and Benzie Conservation Districts for her take on this fall’s phenomenal color.

“Fall color intensity can be explained by science,” says Ross. “But, like so many other events in nature requiring perfect conditions, grand foliage displays are a result of just plain luck.”

That science in a nutshell: Along with the green pigment chlorophyll, which gives the leaf its green color, are yellow to orange pigments, such as carotenes. “Most of the year these colors are masked by great amounts of green coloring,” Ross explains. “But, in the fall, because of changes in the length of daylight and changes in temperature, the leaves stop their food-making process, the chlorophyll breaks down, and the green color disappears. The yellow to orange colors become visible and give the leaves part of their fall splendor.”

She says the rich and varied colors are due to the mixing of varying amounts of the chlorophyll residue and other pigments in the leaf.

Interestingly, trees that are stressed for a variety of reasons — “frost cracks on red maples are one of the most obvious, but either too much water, too little water, or compacted roots,” can lead to many tree species showing vibrant color.

Says Ross, “my favorite fall colors come from the wonderful native red maples which are often growing on very poor soils — both too wet and too dry — and so offer the most vibrant colors.”

And overall, the ingredients for perfect autumn colors are cold — but not freezing — nights, dry weather and bright sunny days. “In dry weather, the leaf sugars become concentrated and produce more anthocyanin, a purply red pigment that also causes apples to turn red and black grapes purple,” Ross says. “And in sunny conditions, photosynthesis can still occur through fall, which uses up the remaining chlorophyll — no longer being produced by the trees — and so the sugar concentration in the leaves further increases, and more anthocyanin is produced.”

Thus, a cloudy, wet fall is what typically leads to drabber autumn leaves.

So, all said and done, Ross says this year’s remarkable fall color remains a mystery of nature — or a gift: “I’m not sure why we are having great color because it has been pretty wet and cloudy. In ways I think we are all just taking more time to notice the natural world around us and have been since March,” she says. “That is a good thing.” 

And now, as those leaves start to fall in earnest, a final note from Ross: “Compost leaves or send them to a community compost system but don’t burn them. And if you leave them right where they fall, they are providing the nutrient cycling our natural world needs along with hosting lots of insects and other wildlife needs.” 

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