Posted November 1997
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 frost, which
can shorten the season.
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
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
Red or Swamp Maple
Northern Red Oak
Small to medium
Small to medium
|Brilliant orange to
Orange to pink
Scarlet, bright red fruit in fall
Yellow to red
Orange to red
Pink to bright red
Red to purple
Orange to red
Orange to scarlet
Yellow to scarlet/maroon,
|Yellow to golden bronze
Golden yellow with red fruit in
Scarlet with crimson fruit in
Bright red with scarlet fruit in
Yellow to orange
Light yellow with purple fruit in
Yellow with yellow flowers in
About Autumn Leaf Coloration
Do all parts of the world enjoy
the beautiful autumn leaf colors that we take for granted in the
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.
frost cause the colors to form? Why do we have more brilliant
colors some years than others?
Actually, 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 and (2) the formation of
anthocyanins (red) and carotenoids (yellow) in leaves, 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."
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