Larry Lyons: This may be a poor fall color year

Published 4:48 pm Thursday, October 7, 2010

Fall has officially arrived and the trees are getting primed for their annual color show. Looking out my patio door I see the sugar maples in my yard are just starting to lose their chlorophyll.

Most are still a yellowish green but a few have transposed to yellow and orange. The impossible to kill mass of small sassafras saplings on the other side of the cabin are starting to show some yellow and orange, too.

The little catalpa across the creek has turned a brilliant chartreuse glowing like neon in the midday sun, highlighting it from the duller green and brown of the surrounding woods. In just days the giant, elephant ear leaves will be their patent fall yellow.

High in the treetops in the woods across the creek is a mass of deep maroon, an unusual color for a tree. Binoculars solve the riddle. It’s not a tree; it’s a mass of woodbine, a creeping vine that spent all summer making its way to the top of a towering dead elm and now seemingly bringing the entire top back to life.

Scattered about on the wall of shrubby little willows hanging out over the creek are little spots of brighter maroon. They should be closer to red than maroon. Perhaps the shade of the sycamore overhead is denying them their true color at the moment. As for the sycamore, it appears to be in denial that show time has arrived for it remains deep green. So, too, for all the cherries, oaks, poplars, hickories, ash and other trees that make up the woods. The Chinese chestnut at the edge of the yard also refuses to let go of summer.

Surprisingly, the walnut trees around my place are still wearing green leaves, though with a slightly yellow tint.  Walnuts are one of the first trees to yield to fall. Usually their leaves have turned yellow and fallen to the ground before the other trees even start thinking about it.

Even though all deciduous trees turn some color in the fall, the brilliant show is almost entirely dependent on the maples. The dull brown of the oaks and sycamores and somewhat boring yellow of cherries, poplars, hickories and walnuts just don’t get the job done. It’s the brilliant orange and, most of all, scarlet red of the maples that make our color show the envy of the world.

There are actually four species of maple that join forces to top off our show. By far the most prevalent is sugar maple.  These provide the background ranging from yellow to orange and slightly dull red. It’s near twin, black maple, does likewise. Silver maples contribute with yellow and light orange.

Lastly is the king of color, the Lord of fall’s palette, red maple. When bathed in sunlight its leaves glow bright scarlet like the coals of a campfire. They are usually loners, just appearing here and there as eye catching highlights in the overall color show.  One exception to this is in Ontario between Sault Ste. Marie and Wawa. Snaking your way through the mountains on Highway 17 you come across breathtaking vistas of glowing, red maple covered ridges extending clear to the horizon. It’s truly awesome.

We all know some years are better than others for color. This depends on the weather in late summer and fall.  Exceptionally dry conditions accelerate the process and the leaves prematurely change and drop resulting in a poor year. Wet, stormy weather can also knock down the leaves prematurely with the same results. The best show comes when late September and early October are dominated by sunny days in the sixties and the nights are crisp and cool but not freezing. This combination blocks sugars in the leaves rather than allowing them to flow to the roots. There they turn into pigment that supercharges the leaf colors.

So how do you think this year will be? September’s temperatures were pretty good but it was unusually dry, so much so the corn and soy beans have matured several weeks early. I suspect the leaves may turn and drop before we know it.

Carpe diem.

Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications.

He can be reached at