Fall has finally arrived, after months of high humidity and sizzling temperatures! Cooler and shorter days signal trees that it is time to put on their color show before dormancy.
Ever wonder what causes leaves to change colors? A chemical reaction within the leaf cells is initiated by the shorter days and cooler nights of autumn. The green leaf pigment (chlorophyll) which produces food for trees during the spring and summer begins to break down in the fall, as deciduous trees go dormant, and the green color begins to fade. Other pigments in the leaf from yellow/orange (carotenoids) to red (anthocyanin) and color combinations in between take over. The amount of pigment is based on tree species and other environmental factors.
Predicting how good the show will be and when the peak will be reached is an inexact science. Light, moisture, and temperature are the primary factors that affect the brilliance and duration of the fall leaf display. A long hot summer, combined with a lack of rain, can cause autumn’s annual color show to be postponed or for stressed trees to just give up and go straight to dropping brown leaves. Fall weather conditions can affect the intensity of the color as well. Fall days with cool temperatures above freezing encourage the vibrant red pigment, due to increased anthocyanin production. If we have an early frost, the intensity of colors is decreased. Rain and clouds can also affect the brilliance of fall colors.
But, take heart – many trees are changing color right now and beginning to reach their peak. You’ll start to notice the mellow yellows of the sassafras, tulip poplar and hickory and the vivid reds of the maple, dogwood, sourwood, sumac and black gum.
If you are a “leaf peeper” like me, you’ll want to keep track of Leaf Watch Georgia 2019, sponsored by Georgia State Parks and the Georgia Forestry Commission. In the weeks ahead, you can follow leaf color progression across north Georgia and get recommendations for where to find the best color. You can access the site at gastateparks.org/leafwatch through October and November.
Here are some popular North Georgia sites to visit to view fall color:
Brasstown Bald: Our tallest mountain at 4,784 feet, Brasstown Bald has an observation deck at the top so you can enjoy 360’ views of spectacular fall foliage, and on a clear day, see views to North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
Blue Ridge Scenic Railway: A quaint way to relax and enjoy fall colors in the mountains is to ride the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway on a 26-mile round trip tour in a vintage, climate-controlled rail car or an open-air rail car, along the Toccoa River. The tour begins at the historic depot in downtown Blue Ridge and stops for a layover in the town of McCaysville, Georgia, and Copperhill, Tennessee – one town split down the middle by two states – before returning to Blue Ridge.
Cloudland Canyon State Park: Located on the western edge of Lookout Mountain, the park encompasses more than 3,000 acres and features a thousand-foot-deep canyon gorge created by the waters of Bear and Daniels Creek. From the overlooks at the rim of the gorge, you can view stunning vistas of ever-changing fall hues.
Red Top Mountain State Park: Just an hour north of Fayette County, Red Top Mountain, located at Lake Allatoona, offers lovely fall color along its more than 15 miles of hiking trails.
Vogel State Park: Located at the base of Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest, Vogel State Park is a popular destination for leaf peepers in the fall when the Blue Ridge Mountains show off their swath of autumn color. There are a variety of trails for hikers to choose from to get away from the crowds and enjoy the fall trees up close and personal.
If you want to add some fall color to your own garden, here are a few suggested landscape trees known for exceptional autumn color:
Eastern Redbud (C. Canadensis) – The redbud’s heart-shaped leaves turn a brilliant yellow in the fall.
Ginkgo (Gingko biloba ‘Autumn Gold’) – This male cultivar does not have unpleasant smell attributed to the female fruiting ginkgo. Its unique fan-shaped leaves turn a stunning gold in the fall.
Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) – Every garden needs a Japanese maple or two! Standouts with fall color include the coral bark maple, ‘Sango-kaku’ – brilliant red bark on young branches and shimmering gold foliage for fall; ‘Tamukeyama’ – deeply lobed foliage that stays a true purple-red through the summer and then turns brighter scarlet in the fall; ‘Mikawa Yatsubusa’ – changes throughout the seasons from yellow-tinted green in spring, to darker green in summer to brilliant scarlet-to-orange in the fall.
Red maple (Acer rubrum) – Red maples are fast growers and can reach an average height of 40-50 feet tall, so give them room to grow. The best varieties for fall color include ‘Autumn Blaze’ -a hybrid of the red and silver maple, ‘Red Sunset’ – with outstanding red-to-orange foliage and ‘October Glory’ – bright orange to reddish-purple.