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A Season of Color

October 10, 2011

One of the most beautiful weddings I have been a part of was for my nephew Edward and his bride, Jennifer, one October at Camp Greenville. Perched high above the Blue Ridge escarpment is Symmes Chapel owned by the YMCA of Greenville County, South Carolina. The views from the open air chapel are spectacular. Known as, Pretty Place, it is a popular site for weddings. The arrangements and bouquets were designed to blend with autumn colors. The sky was a clear deep blue, and the mountains were in their full autumn attire. Midway through the ceremony a pair of ravens soared up from the valley below and glided along the face of the mountains before disappearing over a ridge. For that wedding there was striking beauty that money cannot buy.

In the fall, the Blue Ridge Mountains and surrounding foothills are decked out for their annual autumn display. Peak fall colors in our area occur from mid-October through early November. Though the mountains are home to more than 100 species of trees, the most colorful foliage comes courtesy of sugar maples, scarlet oaks, sweetgums, red maples, and hickory trees.

Those of us who live in the Piedmont are fortunate to enjoy a changing climate. As days shorten and night air becomes crisp, the soothing green canvas of summer foliage is transformed into a breathtaking autumn palette of color. Before settling down into winter’s deep sleep, Mother Nature has one last fling, an amazing fashion show, when mountain foliage turns radiant shades of crimson, red, orange, yellow, and purple.

The Cherokee Indians have a legend that explains why the leaves change color. It is the tale of a mighty bear that roamed the countryside wreaking havoc. The beast would charge into their villages, eat all their food, destroy their homes, stampede their animals, and frighten the women and children.

Tribal elders held a council and selected the bravest hunters to put an end to the bear. The warriors set out with their dogs and weapons to stalk the marauder. The beast fled. The Indians gave chase. One hunter came close enough to shoot, and an arrow nicked the bear. The injury was not serious, but the culprit ran so fast he escaped up into the sky. The determined hunters, in their zeal, ran into the heavens in hot pursuit.

Every autumn, the Big Dipper, known as the Big Bear to the Cherokees, 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 bear changes the colors of the leaves on the trees.

Four factors influence autumn leaf color: leaf pigments, length of daylight and darkness, rainfall, and temperatures. As days grow shorter and nights grow longer and cooler, chemical processes in the leaves begin to paint the autumn landscape.

During the growing season, chlorophyll makes leaves appear green. As night length increases in the autumn, chlorophyll production slows down and then stops. The pigments that are present in the leaf are then unmasked and the trees show their fall colors.

The timing of the color change also varies by species of trees. Sourwood and tulip poplars 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.

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.

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 moisture 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 warm, wet spring, favorable summer weather, and warm, sunny fall days with cool nights produce the most brilliant autumn colors.

The vivid change of color starts in late September in New England and moves southward, reaching the Blue Ridge Mountains by early November. The trees in cooler, higher elevations will change color before their relatives in the valleys.

A couple in the church that I serve said, “We’re skipping your sermon today. We are driving to the mountains to see the color.”

You know, I really couldn’t blame them. Clare and I enjoy cruising Highway 11 in any season, but especially in the fall of the year.

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 display. George’s lines of poetry are dear to any pastor’s heart.

                                        “The leaves reach their peak
                                        In the middle of the week!”
Kirk H. Neely
© October 2011

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