Fall Color Report for Week of September 20, 2020

Today was just spectacular – deep blue skies, low humidity, and most importantly, low temperature. It was 39F at my home this morning and tomorrow it is supposed to get down to 34F! These are the perfect conditions for jump-starting the fall foliage season. Cool temperatures, especially night temperatures, sunny skies, and low humidity (actually we don’t know how humidity affects fall leaf colors!) are what we need for bright fall colors and for those colors to be timed near the long-term average dates. If things keep up like this, we’ll be back to normal timing. However, I do hear the whispers of rising temperatures in about a week, so we will need to keep an eye on that.


No worries if you haven’t made it up to the High Country yet – my rating of the forests right now is 99% green, even at high elevations like the summit of Grandfather Mountain, which is one of the places I visited today. But this period of cool, sunny weather is going to get the color changes going, so each week now we should see more and more leaves start to color up on the hillsides.



There were a few species already in color. At Flat Rock along the Blue Ridge Parkway, one sassafras was in full color already, which is somewhat early. At another location on Grandfather Mountain, the sassafras were still green. Some high bush blueberries were turning burgundy at Flat Rock, and Mountain Ash was showing off its bright red/orange berries. Interestingly, this same species grows in abundance about a half a mile inside the entrance to Grandfather Mt at the first overlook on your left, but when I went by it today I could not see any trees with red berries. Strange how the same species growing in two nearby locations can be so different in their phenological timing.


Mountain maple and yellow buckeyes are losing their leaves now, but neither species has leaves that are much to look at. Mountain maple leaves turn pale yellow, and then often crumple into black, while buckeye leaves quickly turn brown and curl up. Both are known to be species that lose their leaves early.


Most of the color that you’ll see if you go out now is from our native wildflowers, including purple and white asters, Joe-Pye weed, several different species of goldenrods, both in the meadows along the Blue Ridge Parkway and along the trails in the woods, and white snakeroot, whose flowers are peaking now. A few understory herbs are fruiting now, such as Indian Cucumber and Clintonia, but you have to have a keen eye to seem them.


I saw Indian Pipe blooming today near the Chestoa Overlook south of Linville. This plant contains no chlorophyll, and cannot perform photosynthesis to gain carbon. Instead, it parasitizes underground fungi, mostly basidiomycetes that form associations with plants and are known as mycorrhizal fungi. Mushrooms are a type of basidiomycete fungus, just to get you taxonomically oriented.


This means that Indian Pipe ultimately gets its carbon from plants, since the mycorrhizal fungi get their carbon from the plants they form associations with. This type of dependence is known as mycoheterotrophy, meaning it gets its carbon from a fungus. Heterotrophic is just a fancy word meaning an organism that gets its carbon by ingesting another organism (we humans are heterotrophs, for example). Photosynthetic plants, on the other hand, are autotrophs, because they gain their own carbon through the process of photosynthesis.


There are rare variants of this species that are pink or even deep red. The ones I saw today were deep red, with white areas on them, and it was my first time ever seeing this rare variant. See the photo album associated with today’s trip for some pictures. These plants are at most about 4-6” tall. Most of the time the plant is totally white, hence its other common name, the ghost plant. It may be hard to imagine, but Indian Pipe is in the same family of plants as Mountain Laurels and Blueberries (Ericaceae).


I took a new trail today – the Grandfather Extension Trail. This trail makes a loop and you can either start at the Black Rock parking lot below the summit of Grandfather Mountain, or right at the summit by the Swinging Bridge, on the opposite side of the parking lot. It is a lot easier going from the Black Rock lot up than it is going from the summit down. It is not an easy trail – there are many rocks on the trail, cable handholds in steep parts, and slippery parts where it goes through seeps. However, it is only 0.9 miles long, and if you are in good shape, you will do just fine. I highly recommend it.


I was disappointed that many hikers today were not wearing their masks when they passed others on the trails. I made sure that my mask was on when I passed others on the trails. You should too. Don’t take chances and either infect others if you have the virus unknowingly or get infected from others because you didn’t take proper precautions. Wear your masks, even outdoors, as part of your effort to be socially responsible during these tough times.


Next week I’ll be visiting some high elevation sites, including Craggy Gardens, about 18 miles  north of Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway and Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the eastern United States. Maybe I’ll see you there, from a socially safe distance! I will post an album of photos and let you know when it is up later tonight. Au revoir!