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 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
Questions 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.