Falling with the leaves into autumn

Orange, yellow, red — or brown? Many of us look forward to the turning of the leaves every year. It’s a sign…possibly THE sign…of fall and all it represents, as well as a simultaneous invitation and warning that, as some say, “Winter is Coming.”

But what governs the vibrancy — or lack — of fall colors is a hotly debated topic. Some say that the temperature is a crucial factor. Others, that more rain throughout the year leads to more color.

If that last one is true, we’re in for a gorgeous fall.

But science tells us that the secret to a fall full of amazing color is moderation, not extremity in either direction. Brilliant leaves need the two following conditions:

5 Rain, but not too much. Either drought or deluge will result in duller colors than a comfortable medium.

5 Temperatures, but not too much. For the best colors, trees need “a few successional days of warm day and cool (but not frigid) nights,” according to Ian Loewen, Environmental Education Specialist at Kettle Creek State Park.

Don’t forget the tree for the forest, though.

Even within an ecosystem, individual trees can have more or less room for their root systems and can receive more or less moisture depending on the lay of the land, which can have an effect on fall color. Additionally, different species change at different times. In general, sumacs are among the earliest, while oaks are among the latest.

While many of us love the fall color and enjoy taking in nature’s beauty, it is easy to forget that leaves changing color serves a practical purpose, necessary for the survival of the tree.

Trees absorb energy from the sun, and take it in through their leaves through a process called photosynthesis. Photosynthesis descends as a word from Greek: Photo (light) + syn (together) + thesis (put). The process, simplified, uses light to put together water and food, thereby keeping the tree alive.

Leaves are the means through which the tree gains the energy necessary to make this process happen, but for deciduous (leaf-shedding) trees, they are fragile and must be blocked off and allowed to shed during the harsh winter months.

An example of a benefit to the tree is that shedding its leaves reduces the surface area that snow and ice can lay on, thereby reducing the weight on the tree’s branches.

Additionally, the fluids within a broad leaf can freeze easily, which would also cause damage to the tree. Evergreen trees, like pines — think Christmas trees — avoid these dangers by having needles instead of leaves, which are tough and hardy, and are covered in a type of natural wax. Because they can handle the winter, they don’t need to fall, and thus don’t undergo the process of fall color.

And yes, because nature is full of wonder (and is a little crazy), there do exist deciduous trees with needles instead of leaves. These include the Larch family, as well as several Cypress trees, the Dawn Redwood, and the Tamarack. All of these trees have needles which change colors in the fall and shed them for the winter.

One of these oddities can be found right here in Clinton County, in an area just north of Renovo named the Tamarack Swamp Natural Area. Tamaracks, also known as the American Larch or the Eastern Larch, are the only natively growing example of this type of tree in Pennsylvania.

According to the Fall Foliage Prediction Map, the Central Pennsylvania region was supposed to hit peak fall color around Oct. 15, while DCNR’s prediction report showed much of Clinton and Lycoming counties as hitting peak between Oct. 14 – 20, while Centre was estimated to be a bit earlier, ranging from Oct. 5 – 11.

So much for predictions.

Mother Nature does what she wants.

Regardless of the forecasted timing, keep an eye out for the most brilliant color in your area, and be sure to carve out some time for a hike, walk, or drive to enjoy some of the beauty that the area has to offer — as long as this year’s uncooperative weather doesn’t get in the way!

— Kevin McKee is an Express staff writer.