It’s officially fall, y’all! The long-awaited pumpkin spice latte is available at every coffee shop from Church Hill to Short Pump as the warm days and cooler nights cue the trees and shrubs to start changing their leaves for one of the most colorful displays in nature: the fall foliage extravaganza.
It’s a seasonal color display we’ve come to expect, but do you ever wonder why or how leaves change color each autumn? And which trees turn which colors? Why are some red while others turn orange and yellow?
To answer those questions, it’s helpful to remember what leaves do for a plant: Leaves produce the tree’s food. They utilize chlorophyll, a chemical that gives plants their green color, to produce food through the process of photosynthesis. Roots absorb water from the ground, and carbon dioxide is absorbed from the air. Add sunlight, and plants efficiently convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and glucose – the food they use for energy.
As autumn rolls around, the days get shorter and nights get cooler, signaling the trees that winter is coming. Since there isn’t sufficient sunlight for photosynthesis to occur in winter, trees and plants shut down their food-making operations, and the green chlorophyll disappears from their leaves. As chlorophyll fades away, colors such as orange, yellow and red—which have been present in the leaves all summer—are more visible because they aren’t overshadowed by the green color.
When glucose remains in the leaves, the primary color of the leaves turns to red. Without glucose, leaves turn yellow or orange. Brown is formed from plant waste remaining in the leaves. It’s a complex process to form the beautiful fall color displays we anticipate each fall!
Each year, leaves change at a slightly different rate due to fluctuating temperatures and rainfall. The mountains to our west will display their colors first, with peak viewing season from approximately September 29 – October 15, and possibly later in the season. Pinpointing the best time to see the leaves in various locations is just a phone call away:
Virginia Department of Forestry Fall Foliage Report: 1.800.424.LOVE
Skyline Drive and Shenandoah National Park: 540.999.3500 (press “6”)
Blue Ridge Parkway, between Waynesboro and the N.C. border: 828.298.0398 (press “3”)
Also, you can access the Virginia Fall Foliage Report online, updated weekly.
No time to make the trip to the mountains this season? The National Park Service has you covered. Check out their Mountain Web Cam featuring a view from Skyline Drive looking down into the Shenandoah Valley to see the colors change throughout the season.
Who better than the Virginia Department of Forestry to tell us where to go to see some of the most beautiful colors this season?
Skyline Drive is a 105-mile stretch of road that runs north and south along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah National park. It takes about three hours to drive the entire length of the park—barring traffic created by other fall foliage seekers! However, you can access or exit at four separate entrances rather than drive the entire stretch: Here are directions to Shenandoah National Park. There is a park entrance fee of $10 per person or $25 per car. On one day only this fall foliage season, September 30, that fee is waived for National Public Lands Day.
If you don’t want to fight the traffic on Skyline Drive or pay the fee but you’re still ready to explore the fall colors, the Virginia Department of Forestry makes some great suggestions for Fall Foliage Driving Tours through beautiful tree-lined vistas:
Whichever tour or tours you choose, plan plenty of time so that you can drive safely and relax and enjoy nature’s brilliant, colorful display!
Virginia is fortunate to have a wide variety of trees that make our fall foliage display diverse and unforgettable. Here’s what trees you’ll see and which colors they’ll change to:
|Tree||Fall Leaf Color|
|Ash||Yellow to Maroon|
|Beech||Yellow to Orange|
|Dogwood||Scarlet to Purple|
|Oak||Red, Brown or Russet|
|Red Maple||Bright Scarlet|