Fall Color Report - September 11, 2022

Greetings from the High Country! The students up here are all in “high” spirits after watching the Appalachian State University football team defeat the #6th ranked program in the country yesterday, Texas A&M University. Students piled out of their apartments and dorms and congregated on King Street in the middle of town (which is also US 421!) to celebrate. This was our second win over a top 10 team: last time was when we beat Michigan 34-32 in what Sports Illustrated said was the greatest upset of all time in college football history. Although I have problems with the business side of university athletics, they do provide pride and a sense of community when they achieve milestones like this. If only they paid professors what coaches get!

But I digress…a lot! Back to fall leaf color. It’s still too early for much color, but here and there one can see hints of what is to come. Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipfera) leaves are just now starting to turn yellow. And for the last 10 days, yellow buckeyes (Aesculus flava, formerly octandra) have been running yellow, then turn brown, and falling off. Trees in this genus also include A. pavia (red buckeye), and A. sylvatica (Georgia buckeye) and bottlebrush buckeye (A. parviflora), which are native, understory trees in the Piedmont and coastal plain, but do not occur in the mountains. All the species in this genus tend to leaf out early in the spring, often before any other tree, and then in late summer they lose their leaves before most other species. The understory species, in particular, tend to take advantage of the high light conditions in early spring to do most of their photosynthesis, much like spring vernal flowers do. I once co-authored a scientific paper on Georgia buckeye on this very topic. Anyway, the point here is that the early leaf coloring and drop is normal for this group of trees.

Flowering dogwoods continue to increase their color intensity and both red and sugar maples are showing hints of coloring up now. Of course, urban trees are well into their coloration and I’ve included in this report photos of trees on the Appstate campus to illustrate this effect.

We had nearly 5” of rain last week, and with just a few more weeks to go until peak fall color, drought is not going to be an issue this year. Given that, the biggest determinant of when the peak colors will occur is going to be the prevailing temperatures, both day and night. We have had some cool nights this past week, down to the low 50s, but it would better if we could get into the mid-40s. That would spur the colors on. But the long-range NOAA forecast is for above normal temperatures. If only slightly above normal, then colors may be delayed just a few days, but if significantly above normal (like temperatures in 80s here), then they could be delayed a week or even longer (as happened in 2018 and 2019). The good news is that NOAA predicts below average precipitation, and that means more sunny skies, and that, in turn, contributes to more intense red colors.

While you’re waiting for the trees to change color, there is plenty to see closer to the ground. Goldenrods (Solidago sp.) are now blooming and they form dense colonies in old fields and along roadside and trails. For those worried about allergies, know that goldenrods do NOT cause allergies. Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), a completely different species, does. But not goldenrods, so you can enjoy them without concern. If you see tall plants with deeply purple flowers, they are probably New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), and one of my favorite late season bloomers. Evening primroses (most likely Oenothera biennis) are also blooming now, with their prominent buttery yellow flowers. And one of my favorite late blooming species, due to its gigantic flower displays and height (up to 10’ tall) is Joe-Pye Weed (most likely Eutrochium purpureum, formerly known as Eupatorium purpureum).

Next week, weather permitting, I’ll try to head out to Elk Knob State Park, which is above 5,000’ elevation to see how the trees are doing at higher locations. In the meantime, I’ll keep a watch on other high elevation locations such as Mt. Mitchell, Graveyards, and Craggie Gardens, which are all along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Finally, I also publish these reports on the Appstate Biology webpage, which you can navigate to if you want to review past postings in previous years, or want to read some of the scientific essays I wrote about fall color. The link to that site is posted here: https://biology.appstate.edu/fall-colors and if you scroll about you can find links to other fall color resources and a map showing when colors will change all along the mountain chain in western NC. Enjoy! 

P.S. - For annotated pictures with comments, please go to this link on my Fall Color Guy Facebook page. There I have added comments to each photo. The link is: https://www.facebook.com/FallColorGuy . The pictures in the photo folder for this week do not have commentary on them, sorry.

Fall Color Photos