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October 23rd, 2012

What Makes Fall Colorful

When I landscaped my yard a few years ago, I chose trees that I thought would give me fall color. But they’ve been a disappointment. Does good fall color happen only on mature trees?

blog-dougThe ability to produce brilliant fall color is based on a tree’s genetics, not its age. Some species and cultivars are better than others at producing the pigments that light up autumn.

In addition, climate and weather play a big role. Sunny fall days and cold (but not freezing) nights encourage sugar production and retention in the leaves, which in turn promote more of the red and purple pigments known as anthocyanins. Some regions, such as New England, have a color-promoting climate. The same species can display different amounts of color in different regions.

But sometimes weather spoils the show. Summer drought or excessive autumn heat decreases pigment formation. A hard freeze in early fall can turn leaves directly from green to brown. Because temperatures and rainfall vary from year to year, no two falls are identical.

The best way to select trees for fall color is to look around your community in a typical fall and see which trees are the most colorful. Or check regional sources of information, such as your state’s cooperative extension office.  —Doug Hall

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