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It’s Starting! Although it is Only Late-September, the Leaves are Already Beginning to Show Their Fall Colors

By Paul T. Choate

The fall color map. Click to enlarge. Map conceived by Howard Neufeld and Michael Denslow, and designed by Michael Denslow

Sept. 19, 2012. People from all over flock to the Blue Ridge Mountains every year for a few weeks in autumn to see the vibrant colors of the changing leaves as the air starts to get cooler. A local professor is one of the leading experts in providing tips for the “leaf lookers.”

Dr. Howard Neufeld, of Vilas and a professor of plant physiology at Appalachian State University, is considered to be one of the most foremost experts on just how vibrant and beautiful the annual changing of the leaves will be in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Dr. Neufeld has a Ph.D. in physiological plant ecology from the University of Georgia, a master’s in forest ecology from Yale University and a bachelor’s in forestry from Rutgers University. Through his expertise on the subject he has become known as the “Fall Color Guy” and since 2007 has written on the subject for VisitNC.com, the North Carolina Division of Tourism’s website.

This year is looking to be one of the better years, with some very vibrant colors expected to show up right here in the High Country. 

“A couple of weeks ago people might have noticed the weather changed and we started getting into that fall pattern,” said Dr. Neufeld. “Those cool mornings and sunny, warm afternoons are really conducive to building up fall color.”

Dr. Howard Neufeld aka “The Color Guy”

The weather patterns have literally everything to do with just how beautiful the leaves will be during the peak times in autumn. Dr. Neufeld explained that when the chlorophyll (the green pigment) in the leaves degrades it lets through the orange and yellow pigments, which are present year round underneath the green pigmentation. However, the vibrant reds are created in September and October, and need sugar called anthocyanins. Sunny days and cool nights are the best conditions for enhancing the anthocyanins. The sunny days allow for more production of these sugars and the cool nights and mornings allow the leaves to retain more of them.

Rainfall and cloud cover play a big role as well. Too much cloud cover and the leaves will not be able to generate enough anthocyanins. However, in contrast, too many days without rain and the leaves just go from green to brown.

“We avoided the severe drought that plagued the middle part of the county – and even the northern part of the country – and that’s good because if you have a really severe drought like we did two or three years ago, the trees go from being green and then they just drop their leaves.”

Dr. Neufeld said that as long as the High Country continues to have plenty of sunny weather and brisk mornings, the leaf lookers from all over will be pleased with what they find in our area. He is forecasting the peak to be around mid-October, but said there is a slight chance that it may occur slightly earlier than that this year.

As we move closer to the peak of “leaf season,” you can follow Dr. Neufeld online at VisitNC.com’s fall color page, on his blog and at his Appalachian State University web page.

Press release from Grandfather Mountain:

Grandfather Mountain Offers Fall Predictions

The plants that typically turn to their fall colors early have started their transformation at Grandfather Mountain. Prime leaf-looking opportunities are expected to be in early October on the Mountain. Photo by Helen Moss Davis

Sept. 24, 2012. The cooler turn of weather has placed fall on the minds of many and the question of what the season will bring in terms of leaf change is a common one at Grandfather Mountain. Director of Education and Natural Resources Jesse Pope has been keeping a close watch on the trees and more importantly the weather.

“The weather in September is very important to how vibrant fall colors will be,” said Pope. “Sunny days and cool nights are important, as well as not getting too much wind and rain that could potentially bring the leaves down prematurely.”

The plants that typically turn early such as yellow buckeyes, maples, sourwood, huckleberries and Fraser magnolias have already changed color or are in the process right now.

Pope believes that fall color opportunities will be nice at Grandfather Mountain though they may be just a little bit early this year. The transition to fall colors is just beginning on Grandfather with the best colors expected around the first or second weekend in October.

“It’s impossible to precisely predict when the peak color will be,” said Pope. “But one of the great things about Grandfather is that even if you miss it on the Mountain, the high vantage point is a great way to view the color as it works its way to the valleys below.” 

The Stewardship Foundation’s education staff will offer the “Colors of Grandfather” guided walks October 13, 14, 20 and 21. The program focuses on why and how trees change color in the fall and is included in regular park admission. Photo by Helen Moss Davis

The Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation’s Education Staff is offering the “Colors of Grandfather” guided walks at 1 p.m. on October 13, 14, 20 and 21. The walk is included in park admission and gives visitors the opportunity to learn more about how and why leaves change color in the fall. The staff member leading the program can answer questions about the season and identify specific trees along the walk.

The Mountain is open every day in the fall, weather permitting. From September 24 through October 21, ticket sales last from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with the park closing at 6:30 p.m. The hours of operation from October 22 through October 31 are 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. with ticket sales ending at 4:30 p.m. For current weather conditions, phone the Entrance gate at 828-733-4337. 

The Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation is a not-for-profit corporation established to preserve Grandfather Mountain, operate the nature park sustainably in the public interest, provide an exceptional experience for guests, and inspire them to be good stewards of the earth’s resources. For more information, visit www.grandfather.com or call 800-468-7325.