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A Season of Color

October 15, 2012


As I write I am perched with my laptop computer on the tailgate of my pickup truck at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Clare and I have come to the mountains for a brief retreat. After a picnic lunch we have paused to enjoy a Carolina blue sky with only a few high clouds drifting along on a gentle breeze. There is a nip in the air, and the mountains are ablaze with color.

The Southern Appalachian 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, 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 mountain foliage turns radiant shades of crimson, orange, and purple.

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 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, chase away 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 hunters, determined in their chase, ran into the heavens in hot pursuit.

Use your imagination, and you can see the bear depicted in the four stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper. The three stars in the handle of the dipper represent the hunters chasing the bear. The stalkers and their prey go around and around in the northern night 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 bear changes the colors of the leaves on the 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 the breathtaking autumn palette of reds, oranges, yellows, and browns.

Four factors influence autumn leaf color — leaf pigments, length of daylight and darkness, rainfall, and temperatures. The timing of color change is primarily regulated by the increasing length of night hours. 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.

The 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.

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. It 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 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 late spring, or a severe summer drought, can delay the onset of fall color. 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 cooler higher elevations will change color before the valleys.

A couple in the church that I serve said recently, “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 in any season but especially at this time of year. This day on the Blue Ridge Parkway has been a refreshing break for both of us.

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 may not be as eloquent as those of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but they are dear to any pastor’s heart.

The leaves reach their peak
In the middle of the week!


Kirk H. Neely
© October 2012

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