Fall Color Report for Week of October 5, 2020

Sorry for being a day late, but I ran out of hours yesterday! I need more than 24 hrs to get everything done in a day!

I’ve divided my report into two parts: one focuses on the urban trees that are showing great colors now, and the other shows off what I found on Sunday at Beacon Heights and along the Parkway.

The most common urban tree for fall color is the red maple, and most are in full color now in Boone. There are numerous varieties available that are marketed by nurseries with names like Autumn Blaze, October Glory, Red Sunset, and Brandywine. Autumn Blaze and Red Sunset are probably the most popular red-turning varieties, while October Glory is great for more orangy-red colors.

Sugar maples also have brilliant fall foliage that can range from yellow to orange and even red in some cases. The bright yellow and orange leaves complement the deep reds of the red maples. Crimson King Maple has bright yellow-orange leaves and is a popular lawn tree. Some silver maples can turn a bright yellow, but in my experience, their leaves are usually dull and uninteresting. Also, silver maples are very shallowly rooted and can be a nuisance in a yard.

Native red and sugar maples also turn spectacular colors in the fall, so if you have some forest land with these native trees, you are a lucky person. Maybe you have room to plant these native species, which are mostly disease free, and they will liven up your yard during this most colorful season of the year.

Sourwoods are very common in the Southern Appalachians and have long-lasting deep red leave that contrast nicely against their white seed capsules. It is a unique fall color display and one of the highlights of fall color in this region. Another tree with very deep-red leaves is black gum, but it is not as common as sourwood. Dogwoods start turning early in the year and their leaves will last more than a month after turning. The ones in the field across from my home started reddening in late August and they still have leaves the first week into October!

Dogwoods make a striking contrast to other trees in your yard that are still green and which won’t turn colors until late in the season. Here on the Appalachian State University campus, they plant a lot of Kousa dogwoods, which are originally from Korea. They have large, red fruits about the size of golf balls, and make for quite the display against their green leaves, which don’t turn color like our native flowering dogwood leaves do. Our native dogwoods have small red fruits that are a favorite food source for forest animals.

You may have heard that most of our native dogwoods have succumbed to an exotic disease known as dogwood anthracnose. That’s true for dogwoods growing in the understory of many forests up and down the east coast where over 90% mortality has been documented in some locations. But they are less susceptible to the disease if they grow openly in your yard, probably because lower humidities there, compared to the forest understory environment, seem to thwart this pest.

Other plants that are showing great color now in town and in the native forests are Virginia Creeper vine (a bright red color). You can distinguish this species from poison ivy (which also turns red!) in two ways: Virginia creeper has 5 toothed leaflets per leaf which are not that shiny on top, whereas poison ivy has leaves with three leaflets (leaves of three, let it be!). Virginia Creeper also has special tendrils that can attach to tree trunks as well as the walls of your house! When the tendrils touch a solid object, such as a tree trunk or your home, cells in the small pads at the end burst open and release compounds that act like epoxy glue and stick the tendril to its host. Poison ivy, on the other hand, has much finer roots spread all along the climbing stem, with no visible pads.

Charles Darwin was fascinated by Virginia Creeper tendrils. Once they attach to a host, they tend to curl. This allows them to act like a spring and help hold the vine to its support, especially when the wind is blowing. Darwin tested how strongly the tendrils were attached to its hosts by hanging weights on them until they either broke or detached.

I’ve put together an album of urban trees showing off their great colors, and also pictures of creatures other than trees that are active this week in the High Country. This is one of the best years in a long time for woolly bear caterpillars, but unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 virus, the Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk had to be canceled this year. Let’s hope it comes back next year.

For the native trees out along the Parkway, there is some good color coming along now. The eastern flank of Grandfather Mountain is well along in its color development and should peak in the next 10 days. It is still mostly green along the majority of the Blue Ridge Parkway, but trees have begun turning in many places. Color will continue to get better over the next two weeks.

Because of the moderate temperatures since August and into September, I think we'll be closer to normal times this year for peak color. Because of a lack of drought, the trees are retaining their leaves well into the fall so we will have a plethora of leaves to turn color this year. Sometime between the 12th and 18th should be peak color at around 3,000' elevation, a few days earlier high up, and a week or 10 days later moving downslope.

Right now, red and sugar maples, sourwoods, blueberries, tulip poplars, Fraser magnolias, birches, dogwoods and sassafras are showing good color. The sourwoods, and the red and sugar maples, are doing particularly well right now. For the first time in several years, tulip poplars are turning yellow, where in years past, drought has caused the leaves to turn black and fall off early. I remember in the “old” days, they would be beacons of yellow against the orange and red of the other trees. Warming in recent years put the kibosh on that, but with the lower temperatures this year, maybe they will provide us with that show from long ago.

Next weekend I’m off to Doughton Park in Ashe County to take in the views there. If you are coming up, have a safe drive. Stay socially distanced, wear masks when near people and avoid clumping together at the overlooks. One need only see the super-spreader effects affecting White House personnel to know that failure to protect yourself and failure on your part to prevent others from catching it, can have drastic and tragic consequences. So, have a great time, and be smart about being outdoors!

Urban Trees in Color

Beacon Heights