Fall Foliage Report

Autumn-in-the-ozarks-by-bhanu.tNorthwest Arkansas is one of the best places to see the leaves change color and, so far, it’s shaping up to be a good year. Trees need cool but not freezing temperatures and a healthy summer to produce brilliant hues. Since this summer didn’t see as much drought as years past, trees might be ready to show some fantastic colors.

The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism releases foliage updates as fall starts to deepen colors, so be sure to check back often on their website to see the latest color reports for the state.

But how exactly do leave change color?

At any time, a leaf has more than one chemical that makes up its color. Chlorophyll is what gives leaves their green color while anthocyanin and carotenoids create reds and yellows, respectively. Chlorophyll, however, masks other chemicals that are present in the leaves so when chlorophyll levels are high, you’ll only see green leaves. It’s when this balance gets out of control that leaves look beautiful.

Light is required for chlorophyll production and as the levels of sunlight start to diminish as we approach winter, trees decrease their production of chlorophyll. Once they slow down chlorophyll production, the chlorophyll starts to break down. Anthocyanin and carotenoids, the chemicals that causes red and yellow leaves, starts to rise in trees if sugar levels increase.

Sugar is the end product of photosynthesis and is the fuel plants use to grow. Leaves use light to break down water into oxygen and nitrogen and combine it with carbon dioxide to make glucose. As winter approaches, trees prepare to rest through the cold and start to stockpile glucose to make it through the winter. Sugar levels rise in the tree, which allows for us to harvest the sap and make syrups out of trees with particularly high levels, such as maples.

Days of around 65 degrees and nights of around 45 degrees produce the best fall foliage because of how heat and light affect sugar levels. Clear, sunny days help plants produce sugar through photosynthesis but that sugar gets stuck in the leaves on cool nights. The change in sugar levels in the leaves changes the balance of chlorophyll to anthocyanins and carotenoids and produces vibrant colors as the levels of the two later chemicals rise.

Different trees have different natural concentrations of anthocyanins and carotenoids and this produces a range of colors once the chlorophyll levels are low enough that they no longer mask these two chemicals. Other types of trees might not have these chemicals enough to show off and other chemicals can dictate the leaf color, like oaks that often turn brown because of tannins.

Without high sugar levels in the leaves, leaves look muted, brown, and just not as pretty. So here’s to hoping temperatures are cool and skies are clear!

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