Learning Leaf Colors Unique to Tree Families

Learning Leaf Colors Unique to Tree Families

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Certain broadleaf trees can be uniquely identified by their brilliant fall leaf color.

In some cases, a tree's common name is derived from its primary autumn leaf color, such as red maple and yellow poplar.

The most common leaf colors of fall are red, yellow, and orange. Some tree species can express several of these colors simultaneously as the season progresses.

How Fall Leaf Color Develops

All leaves start out in summer as green. This is because of the presence of a group of green pigments known as chlorophyll.

When these green pigments are abundant in the leaf's cells during the growing season, they mask the color of any other pigments that may be present in the leaf.

Chlorophyll in the leaves is the tree's main means of producing nutrients during the summer. But with autumn comes the destruction of chlorophyll. This demise of the green pigments allows other, previously masked colors to come forward.

Those unmasked fall colors quickly become markers for individual deciduous tree species.

The two other pigments present in leaves are:

  • Carotenoid (produces yellow, orange, and brown)
  • Anthocyanin (produces red)

Trees With Red Leaves

Red is produced by warm, sunny fall days and cool fall nights.

Leftover food in the leaf is transformed into the color red through anthocyanin pigments. These red pigments also color cranberries, red apples, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, and plums.

Some maples, sweetgum, and oaks have red fall leaves. Dogwoods, black tupelo trees, sourwood trees, persimmons, and some sassafras trees also have red leaves.

Yellow and Orange Shades

Chlorophyll is destroyed with the onset of autumnal conditions, which reveals the orange and yellow leaf colors, or carotenoid pigments.

Deep orange is a combination of the red and yellow color-making process. These yellow and orange pigments also color carrots, corn, canaries, and daffodils, as well as egg yolks, rutabagas, buttercups, and bananas.

Hickory, ash, some maples, the yellow poplar (tulip tree), some oaks (white, chestnut, bear), some sassafras, some sweetgum, beech, birch, and sycamore trees have yellow leaves in the fall.

Weather's Effect

Some years see more brilliant color displays than others. It all depends on weather conditions.

Temperature, the amount of sunlight and how much rain fell all are contributing factors in color intensity and in how long they'll remain.

Low temperatures, but above freezing, are good for reds in maples, but an early frost can hurt a bright red color, according to SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Overcast days tend to make all colors more intense.

Peak Viewing

The United States and Canada produce a variety of fall foliage colors which has created a tourism industry.

Here are peak viewing times in the United States:

  • Late September/ Early October: New England, upper Minnesota/Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Rocky Mountains
  • Mid-, Late October: Upper Midwest
  • November: Southwest, Southeast

Some Stay Green

Not all broadleaf trees change colors and drop their leaves in the fall.

Found mostly in southern climates, some evergreens broadleaf trees can survive tough winters. Magnolias, some oaks, and myrtles are among them.

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