NC fall foliage: Expect it to be later, but just as vibrant in the mountains

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Fall colors are trickling down the mountains, but scientists expect peak season will come slightly late this year.

According to Dr. Howie Neufeld, a plant biology professor at Appalachian State and “The Fall Color Guy” on Facebook, the mountains typically peak between Oct. 10-20, though that varies based on the weather patterns year to year.

“Cool days will time the fall colors,” he said. “If it’s warm, fall colors tend to be delayed for some of the trees.”

This is especially true of the bright reds from maples. Bright sunny days and cool nights, help the trees produce sugar abundant sugar which gets trapped in the leaves. In response, the plants produce red anthocycanin pigments.

(Photos: Photos: Fall colors in the North Carolina mountains)

As for the yellow pigments, in poplars and ash trees, those are always present in the leaves but become more apparent as temperatures cool, the plants go dormant and the chlorophyll in their leaves fades.

Another factor can be water. In drought years, trees can get stressed, causing leaves to wilt or drop early. Though October has been abnormally dry, Neufeld does not expect that to have much of an impact on colors at least in the mountains.

“We’re close enough to the peak season that even if it doesn’t rain, there’s enough water in the soil that they’re going to go through their fall color season without getting too drought stressed,” he said.

Once leaves start to turn, Neufeld said trees use less water. While mountains may be far enough along in the process though, color in places in the Piedmont and Sandhills where things are significantly drier could be impacted if rain doesn’t come soon.

For the most part however, Neufeld said his focus is completely on temperature.

“We’ve had a mini warm wave, not a heat wave, this last week. It kind of slowed the colors down,” he said.

Based on this warm spell combined with heat in late September and early October, Neufeld expects most of the mountains to peak between Oct. 24-31.

“Between this weekend and the next weekend we’ll see the colors really develop,” he said.

Neufeld said there isn’t enough evidence to show a trend in colors appearing later than usual over time, however, he says in recent years there has been a lot more variability than in his first eight years of forecasting.

“From 2008-2016 all but one year were within this October 10-20th period so they were all on time,” he said. “Staring in 2017 it’s all over the place.”

For those interested in traveling for leaf peeping, he says it’s hard to plan too far in advance, but he can help narrow down where things might be the brightest in each of his weekly reports.

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Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.