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08/23/2011

WCU’s fall foliage forecaster predicts ‘excellent’ colors in WNC mountains

It’s still hot and sticky in Western North Carolina, but the fall leaf color predictions are already starting!

Kathy Mathews, Western Carolina University’s fall foliage forecaster is calling for an “excellent” fall color show, thanks in large part to weather conditions over the spring and summer.

“While heavy spring rain is generally not a good sign for fall color, records indicate that rainfall was slightly below normal for March, average for April and May, and slightly below normal for June and July, as gardeners struggled to keep their crops watered,” said Mathews, WCU associate professor of biology specializing in plant systematics.

“These conditions actually are promising for good development of leaf color in September and October.”

In addition, mid-August brought a respite from the hot temperatures of June and July, another good sign of vibrant leaf color during autumn, she said in a news release today.

Mathews believes that the formation of higher levels of yellow, orange and red pigments in the leaves seems to correlate with dry weather throughout the year. The drier the climate, the more brilliant the fall leaves tend to be, she said.

Of course, when it comes to forecasting the vibrancy of the fall color season, just as with forecasting the weather, there are no guarantees.

Some weather forecast models show Hurricane Irene, currently moving across the Caribbean Sea, dropping heavy rains on Western North Carolina, which could affect fall colors in the mountains, Mathews said.

Cooler temperatures of autumn contribute to the decomposition of chlorophyll, the chemical that gives leaves their green color in spring and summer. As chlorophyll breaks down, yellow pigments – always present in the leaves, but masked by the green of chlorophyll – are revealed, and new red pigments are produced.

Depending upon the timing of the first frost, the peak of fall color should arrive during the second week of October in the higher elevations, and during the third week of October in the mid-elevations, Mathews said.

“Look for the earliest color change to take place on the sourwoods and dogwoods, which both turn red, as well as the tulip poplars, which become yellow but tend to turn brown early,” Mathews said. “Colorful maples, with hues of red, orange and yellow, and birches, which turn yellow, bring us into the peak period. Finally, oaks turn orange and red to round out the later color change in the season.”

By Karen Chavez

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