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The Peak of Fall Color

October 19, 2009

The second Saturday in October, Clare and I attended an event at Montreat Conference Center near Black Mountain, North Carolina. There were several black bear sightings by members of our group. The main attraction, however, was the annual display of fall foliage. The colorful show was just beginning in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

This week promises to be the peak in the higher elevations. Along the Blue Ridge Parkway north of Asheville, there is stunning color toward Mt. Mitchell and Grandfather Mountain.

The English poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, celebrated autumn with a rhyme.
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can.

The Blue Ridge Mountains and surrounding foothills are poised for the annual display. The rain of the past week and the cooler temperatures should enhance the color. Peak colors are predicted through early November.

Though the mountains are home to more than 100 species of trees, the most colorful leaves come courtesy of sugar maples, scarlet oaks, sweet gums, red maples, and hickory trees.

Before settling down into winter’s deep sleep, Mother Nature has one last fling, an amazing fashion show, when the mountains turn radiant shades of crimson, orange, and purple.

A Cherokee Indian legend explains why the leaves change color. It is a tale of a mighty black bear that roamed the countryside wreaking havoc. The invader would charge into their villages, eat all their food, destroy their homes, chase away their animals, and frighten the women and children.

Tribal elders held a council and selected the bravest warriors to put an end to the bear. The hunters set out with their dogs and weapons to stalk the ferocious beast. One hunter came close enough to shoot. His arrow nicked the marauding animal in the flank. The injury was not serious, but the bear ran so fast he fled into the sky. The hunters gave chase into the heavens after their prey.

The bear can be imagined as the four stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper. The three stars in the handle of the dipper represent the warriors in pursuit. The hunters and bear go round and round in the northern sky. Every autumn, the Big Dipper comes low to the horizon. It is then, according to the legend, that the bear’s wound leaks a few drops of blood. According to the legend, the blood of the beast changes the colors of the leaves on the trees.

Those of us who live in the Piedmont are fortunate to enjoy a climate where, as the days shorten and the night air becomes crisp, the soothing green canvas of summer foliage is transformed to the vivid autumn palette of reds, oranges, yellows, and browns. The result can be breathtaking.

The timing of the color change varies by species of trees. Sourwood in southern forests can become a vivid yellow in late summer while all other species are still green. Oaks put on their colors long after other species have already shed their leaves.

The amount and brilliance of the colors that develop in any particular autumn season are related to weather conditions that occur before and during the time the chlorophyll in the leaves is dwindling. Temperature and moisture are the main influences.

The mythical Jack Frost supposedly brings reds and purples to the forest by pinching the leaves with his icy fingers. The hues of yellow, gold, and brown are mixed in his paint box and applied with quick broad strokes of his brush as he silently moves among the trees decorating them.

Actually, frost does not bring autumn hues but turns the leaves brown. The most spectacular color displays are brought on by a succession of warm, sunny days and cool, but not freezing, nights. During these days, sugars are produced in the leaf. The cool nights and the gradual closing of veins going into the leaf prevent these sugars from moving out. The combination of sugar and light spurs production of brilliant pigments in the leaves.

The amount of water in the soil also affects autumn colors. Like the weather, soil moisture varies greatly from year to year. The countless combinations of these two highly variable factors assure that no two autumns will be exactly alike. A late spring, or a severe summer drought, can delay the onset of fall color by a few weeks. A warm period during fall will also lower the intensity of autumn colors. A warm wet spring, favorable summer weather, and warm sunny fall days with cool nights will produce the most brilliant autumn colors.

Unfortunately, autumn color is not very predictable. But the change of color generally starts in late September in New England and moves southward, reaching the Piedmont by early November. The cooler higher elevations will change color before the more temperate valleys.

George Schrieffer, a minister friend, came up with a short rhyme for the fall season. He was concerned that folks would be tempted to skip church on Sunday to drive to the mountains to see the beautiful display of autumn color. His poetry may not be quite as eloquent as that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but George’s lines are no less appropriate.
The leaves reach their peak
In the middle of the week!

Kirk H. Neely
© October 2009
Kirk Neely will be signing his new book, A Good Mule is Hard to Find, at The Turtle Parfait in Woodruff, 11:30-2:00, October 23, and at Strawberry Hill in Cooley Springs, 10:00-2:00, October 24. You may purchase his books at these events.

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