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Please Take Your Seats – The Show is About to Begin

 
PriceLakeLeaves3.jpg
Perhaps a better directive would be “please begin planning your itineraries and booking your reservations; the show is about to begin.” As the calendar continues its march to the fall equinox, the anticipation of the changing of the leaves builds.

Will this be a good fall color season? How will the recent hurricane affect the leaves? Just what happens to make the leaves change anyway? The answers to these questions will vary depending upon who you ask, where you live, and the types of trees in the general area. To get a better handle on an answer that is applicable for the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, we contacted Dr. Howard Neufeld at Appalachian State University. Over the last 31 years, Dr. Neufeld has paid particular attention to the colors and how they change in and around Boone. He also maintains his own “color watch” each year that can be found HERE

"This year’s color season looks to be a good one. We’ve had a cool summer and have not experienced drought conditions."- Dr. Howard Neufeld

To get the most important two questions out of the way first, Dr. Neufeld says, “This year’s color season looks to be a good one. We’ve had a cool summer and have not experienced drought conditions.” Drought seasons tend to negatively affect the Tulip Poplars in particular. “When we have summer droughts, the tulip poplars just drop their leaves. This year, we may see their characteristic bright yellows in the landscape again.”

The remnants of Irma were blowing through the area when we talked with Dr. Neufeld. “It’s a good thing the hurricane is coming through now.” Wind and rain can negatively affect the colors by dulling them and by blowing them off the trees. “While some leaves are beginning to change, the wind and rain should have little effect overall.”

PriceLakeLeaves1.jpgThe science of how leaves change color is interesting. While the basics are understood, there is still room for lots of research. Basically, the yellows and oranges we see when leaves turn are there all year. Chlorophyll production during the growing season hides the leaves’ true colors, but it also provides food for the trees through photosynthesis and gives us oxygen to breathe. Once the shorter and cooler days of fall start, they trip a switch for the trees to begin preparing for winter.

Carotenoids, the yellows and oranges, begin appearing at chlorophyll production slows and stops. Anthocyanins provide a natural sunscreen for plants. “The red protects the leaves,” said Dr. Neufeld. “If you pay attention to the east side of a maple tree, the side that faces the sun will turn first and have higher color. We believe it might be because the rising sun is bright on the cool leaves making them work harder for sunscreen.”

Once the veins carrying food between the leaves and the tree become clogged, the stem will begin to close off. When that process has completed, the leaf is ready to fall.

“The leaves can change in patterns,” said Dr. Neufeld. “Red trees, like sourwoods, turn red on the east side first and at the top. Yellow trees can turn all at once and with no pattern at all. Tulip poplars turn from the inside out, so leaves nearer the trunk will take on their bright yellow shades first.”

PriceLakeLeaves2.jpgAs we continued our conversation, Dr. Neufeld commented, “If we had color photographs of the area from 100 years ago, the landscape would look quite different. There would likely be much more yellow, partially from the American Chestnut.” The chestnut blight in the early 1900s destroyed the American Chestnut. You can sometimes find saplings in the forest in the understory, but they will never grow to maturity.

As you begin to plan your fall excursions, we have a few words of advice:

  • Make reservations ahead of time, particularly if you are visiting the mountains. This is one of the most popular times of the year to visit (for good reason) and accommodations are often hard to find when you visit on a whim.
  • Check the calendar of events. All of our communities have some really cool festivals and cultural activities during the fall months. You’ll want to try to work in a visit to one (or two) of them while you’re in the area.
  • Take a hike or a drive off the beaten path. Fall is a great time to get out and explore.
  • Make sure to be prepared for sudden weather changes. Fall weather can be unpredictable and can change quickly. You might have the opportunity to experience all the seasons of the year in one day.
  • Follow Mast Store’s Fall Foliage Primer posts. New reports are posted each Wednesday from the Boone/Valle Crucis, Waynesville, Hendersonville, Asheville, Knoxville, and Greenville areas. They will detail where you can go to see good color, show you some photos from the prior weekend, and make a few recommendations of events and activities to enjoy during your visit.

Speaking of recommendations, Dr. Neufeld had a few favorite spots to take in the fall spectacle. “The east side of Grandfather Mountain near Rough Ridge is always spectacular,” says Dr. Neufeld. “I also highly recommend heading out to Elk Knob State Park and hiking up the summit trail. The overlook toward Ashe County usually has high color.”

The peak of the leaves in the Boone area usually falls in the second and/or third week in October. “If you miss the peak here, head out to the Blue Ridge Parkway and take the short hike out to Beacon Heights,” says Dr. Neufeld. “When you look out from the rock outcropping, you’re looking down in the foothills toward Hickory and Charlotte. You’ll see color heading into the valley.”

Going down 1,000 feet in elevation, gains about 10 more days of color.  So, the peak color in Asheville should be around late October and for Greenville and Knoxville early to mid-November.

Happy leafing!