fall leaves

Now that we’re in the latter part of October, many people’s thoughts are turning to fall color. As usual, predicting how good this year’s fall color will be is a huge guessing game. It’s probably easier to explain what’s happening than to try to predict it.

For starters, a major component of the fall color recipe is the type of weather we have in September and early October. During this time warm, sunny days followed by cool nights are ideal for the production of anthocyanins, the pigments responsible for the red and purplish hues in leaves. In trees with acidic sap, reds will predominate, and a more purplish tone will prevail in trees that have alkaline sap conditions.

Yellow leaves are the result of pigments called carotenoids. Most of the year, these pigments are covered by a greater amount of green chlorophyll. In fall the chlorophyll breaks down, the green color disappears and the yellows become more visible.

Just as weather in September and early October is critical to the formation of leaf color, weather in middle and late October helps determine how long we get to enjoy fall color. That’s because part of the autumn leaf-drop process trees go through is the abscission zone development that occurs between a leaf’s stem and the branch it’s attached to. 

Basically, this process consists of a hardening of cells in the leaf’s stem and a similar cell-hardening process that takes place in the branch. As the two sides of the leaf-branch connection harden, an abscission zone, also known as a fracture zone, develops in the middle. As both sides harden, the leaf-branch connection continues to get more brittle until the leaf eventually breaks free and falls to the ground. 

If we have mild weather during the period when leaves are nearing the breaking-off point, fall color is a drawn-out affair that lasts for several weeks. If we have a heavy rain, strong winds or some other type of stormy event that drops a large amount of leaves, our fall color will be a much shorter experience.

So, although this article has used a lot of words to tell you very little about what kind of leaf color we can expect to see this fall, one thing can be said with certainty: Regardless of what the statewide fall color predictions are, get out and enjoy the autumn beauty because you’ll be able to find spots that are absolutely gorgeous.

Autumn color in the Ozarks usually begins when small, vine-type plants such as sumac, poison ivy and Virginia creeper begin to turn red. These are the plants commonly found growing in old fence rows and other brushy areas. Although not as large as oaks and maples, the colors of these early turning plants can be just as vibrant as anything you’ll see later in the year. 

This early foliage show leads into the fall color pageant that typically reaches a peak sometime in the middle to the latter part of October. It’s looking like this year the peak definitely will be in the latter part of the month.

If you want to go to forested areas to see fall foliage, there are many public places in the region from which to choose. Check with your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or contact person to find out about hunting activities that also might take place at the area.

If you want to do your own personal driving tour, county highways and farm roads can lead you to some great off-the-main-road fall color spots. If you live in an urban area and rather would walk than drive, you still might be within a short stroll of good fall color. Parks, cemeteries and older parts of towns — any place that has large, mature trees — are good places to find colorful foliage.

Information about fall color in Missouri can be found at mdc.mo.gov.

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call (417) 895-6880.

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