illustration of a leaf

Extension Forestry & Natural Resources

Wildlife & Fisheries Biology  -  Environmental & Natural Resources  -  Forest Resources

Fall Color in the Carolinas

Stephen K. Nodine, Former Extension Forester
Ansel Miller, Former Professor of Forest Resources
Larry R. Nelson, Former Extension Forester and Associate Professor

FNR-2: Revised September 2011 (Formerly Forestry Leaflet 25)

Every fall, many people look forward to the colorful display of trees changing color. Although everyone looks for a "peak" when the colors are at their best, there is a long season for enjoying the colors. From the last week in September through the middle of November, you can find bright red, yellow, and scarlet foliage somewhere in the Carolinas. Folklore has attributed this colorful display to visits from Jack Frost, but a series of chemical processes in the leaves create the palette of colors which we see. These processes are triggered by the shorter periods of daylight as fall approaches, and by the cooler temperatures. The weather of the preceding summer usually has minimal effects on the type of fall colors we have. The only "bad" weather for fall color is an early killing frost, which can shorten the season, or a warm, wet fall which reduced the red-forming pigments due to a lack of bright sunlight and cool temperatures.

Anyone making travel plans to see the fall colors can begin visiting the higher elevations of the Carolinas in late September. By early October most mountain roads are crowded with cars. Motel rooms become scarce during October, so you need to call ahead if you can. If your travel schedule can be flexible, watch the weather reports for an approaching cold front. After these pass through our area, the haze is cleared away and visibility is ideal. So if you can, keep a bag packed and watch the weather reports for your best leaf-watching trips. And if you have to plan ahead, anytime in October can be a treat as the color changes spread from the mountains to the coast.

Here is a listing of some native South Carolina trees and shrubs especially noted for their colorful autumn foliage. Some of them are also attractive for the color of their fruit. The common and scientific names are listed followed by heights usually attained at maturity, designated as follows: small trees or shrubs are less than 50 feet tall at maturity; medium trees are 50 feet to 100 feet; and large trees are over 100 feet. Most of these plants, especially the trees, attain maturity only after many years. Colors indicated are of autumn foliage; fruits are mentioned only if conspicuous.


Common Name

Scientific Name





Black Cherry

Flowering Dogwood

Downy Serviceberry


Red Maple

Northern Red Oak

Scarlet Oak

White Oak





Nyssa sylvatica

Prunus serotina

Cornus florida

Amelanchier canadensis

Carpinus caroliniana

Acer rubrum

Quercus rubra

Quercus coccinea

Quercus alba

Diospyros virginiana

Sassafras albidum

Oxydendrum arboreum

Liquidambar styraciflua




Small to Medium


Medium to Large

Medium to Large


Medium to Large

Small to medium

Small to medium



Brilliant orange to scarlet

Orange to pink

Scarlet, bright red fruit in fall

Yellow to red

Orange to red

Pink to bright red


Brilliant scarlet

Red to purple

Orange to red

Orange to scarlet

Brilliant scarlet

Yellow to scarlet/maroon, variable


American Beech

River Birch

Mockernut Hickory

Shagbark Hickory

Pignut Hickory

Red Mulberry

Eastern Redbud




Fagus grandifolia

Betula nigra

Carye tomentosa

Carya ovata

Carya glabra

Morus rubra

Cercis canadensis

Amelanchier arborea

Platanus occidentalis

Liriodendron tulipifera

Medium to large

Medium to large

Medium to large

Medium to large

Medium to large






Yellow to golden bronze


Golden brown








Common Name

Scientific Name





Shining Sumac

Smooth Sumac

Sweet pepperbush

Strawberry bush


Viburnum prunifolium

Chionanthus virginicus

Lindera benzoin

Rhus copallina

Rhus glabra

Clethra acuminate

Euonymus americanus

Hamamelis virginiana

Shining red

Bright yellow

Golden yellow with red fruit in fall

Scarlet with crimson fruit in fall

Bright red with scarlet fruit in fall

Yellow to orange

Light yellow with purple fruit in fall

Yellow with yellow flowers in early fall

sweetgumQuestions and Answers About Autumn Leaf Coloration

Do all parts of the world enjoy the beautiful autumn leaf colors that we take for granted in the Carolinas?
No, there are only a few areas of the world where this yearly display occurs. In the Northern Hemisphere, the colored leaves are seen only in Eastern North America, England, Western Europe, China, and parts of Japan. Only three small areas in the Southern Hemisphere show the flaming autumn leaves.

What causes the colors?
Certain naturally occurring pigments cause the colors. As days become shorter and nights cooler in the autumn, the replacement of the green chlorophyll in the leaves slows. Pigments called carotenoids, responsible for brilliant yellow to brown colors (as in hickories) are then exposed. As the leaves become older, tannins accumulate in the leaves of some species such as beech, giving bronze tones. In other species, such as dogwood and sweetgum, the anthocyanin pigments develop, causing colors ranging from red through maroon to purple This latter chemical is particularly prevalent under conditions which use an accumulation of sugars in the leaves. Intermediate colors, such as orange tones, may occur when leaves contain a mixture of two or more of the pigments. The specific pigments and mixtures are largely a species characteristic.

Does frost cause the colors to form? Why do we have more brilliant colors some years than others?
sugar mapleActually, heavy early frost prevents good color development by causing the leaves to fall early in the season. Colors appear due to (1) reduction in the amount of chlorophyll (green) pigments, (2) exposure to underlying carotenoids (yellow) in leaves, and (3) the formation of anthocyanins (red) which is favored by cool weather.

The best color development seems to take place when a dry summer is followed by crisp, cool (not cold) autumn nights. Weather patterns during the fall have the greatest impact, both in controlling color change and in enhancing our view of the colors. Clear, sunlit days show colors off to their best advantage, especially in the early morning or late in the afternoon when the sunlight passing through the leaves seems almost to make them "glow."

Why do the leaves finally fall off?
An abscission layer, a double corky layer, forms at the base of the leaf petiole where it joins the twig. This cuts off movement into and out of the leaf, causing it to drop off at the abscission layer, leaving a sealed scar.


Thanks to Dr. Davis McGregor, Former Professor of Forestry, for background material, and to Dr. Vic Shelburne, Professor of Forest Resources, for his input and review.