Fall Colors in Appalachia

Most people in this region look forward to the fall more than any other season, despite this being the prologue to winter. Starting in September at the atlas or far end of Appalachia, color changes ripple down the spine to the coccyx at the southern extremity a month later, but the finest sights are in the north and at high elevations. Colorful sugar maples like it cool.

Fall colors in Appalachia

People have probably marveled at the spectacle ever since they first set eyes on it eons ago, and long before they wrote about it. I find it perfectly understandable if Native Americans believed fall beauty was the deliberate artistry of a Great Spirit who painted the trees, flowers and creatures for human pleasure, like the Huron story of a great bear’s blood dripping on the forest from heaven and other stories passed down in tradition and lore. More than anyone else, Charles Darwin deposed humans from the center and purpose of creation, but accommodated his feelings for natural beauty in an evolutionary perspective (‘There is grandeur in this view of life …’), which is surely true though we have paid a price by losing a naïve and supremely arresting joy out of mystery.

When the first people saw the Appalachian Mountains there were no trees because the land had been scraped by glaciers and it took centuries for forestland to replace retreating plants that were the first colonizers after the last Ice Age. We are lucky to live in an era when conditions favor trees with fall splendor, though probably one of the last generations to witness them as climate warming pushes back the season and trees struggle with summer heat. The change is not so much a loss to the tourist industry as to the human spirit.

This year’s weather has muted fall colors in Central Appalachia. The maples were almost denuded a month ago, although the oaks are still green and beeches golden-yellow.

Leaf color chemistry is molded by weather. For the most brilliant display, summers should have plenty of rain because drought triggers leaf abscission. Then, late summer should have warm, dry days and cool nights with little wind. Those conditions prevailed this year, save one—the nights stayed mild. We had our first frost on October 17, but it was slight and night temperatures were mostly above average. An Indian summer spoiled a painted fall.

The closer you look at leaf chemistry the more complicated it seems. This is surely a principle in science as, for example, whether physicists study elementary particles or the cosmos the closer their examination the deeper and further they are borne. Science mines nature, but we never get to the end of the seam. We celebrate this richness, but it must be frustrating for politicians who commission research because they hope complexity will turn into neat answers, yet at the end of a study the conclusions are often provisional and there are plenty of new questions.

Once upon a time, fall colors were regarded as consequences of healthy biochemistry yielding to organic decay. The fact of the matter is half opposite because they involve a rather active process. Some genes switch off while others turn on. Each leaf is more in command of its fate than left to the consideration of entropy. Of course, photosynthesis does shut down in the absence of enough sunshine or moisture, and, to add complexity, deciduous leaves are more responsive than evergreens. It’s a familiar story because a sun-loving pot plant left in a shady place when we go on vacation will be a pile of dry leaves and bare stems when we return. It is a protective mechanism for plants and deciduous trees in autumn to withdraw vital nutrients and minerals from leaves into their ‘body’ for storage until needed at the start of the new growing season when the sun breaks out.

When the green pigment disappears, the yellows and oranges that were present all along are revealed. Beech leaves go a step further when the pigments turn into brown tannins that we notice dangling on stems all winter. But the red and purple pigments of maples and gums are synthesized de novo shortly before their leaves fall.

These are anthocyanins, which are molecules that are abundant in ripe berries and grapes and lend red wine its virtuous reputation. They are beneficial for leaves too where they serve as sunscreens and antioxidants to protect valuable molecules synthesized in the summer from solar rays shortly before the fall. There is another theory that bright colors warn away pests, as if rouge leaves can tell insects they ought to buzz off to find a less vigorous tree. It doesn’t square with the widespread lack of receptors needed for seeing red.

Despite its brisk pace, I believe science will never end and its ambition will never find a final goal. That’s worth celebrating. Life would be boring, almost pointless, if everything was predictable and nothing was mysterious. Mystery is sacred.

Fortunately, there are still countless enigmas in nature to stimulate our curiosity, and keep scientists employed. In this post I can mention only one, though it is relevant here. I wonder why evolution hasn’t given all deciduous trees the same glorious reds and purples in the fall if those pigments are so beneficial. Isn’t natural selection supposed to steer genetics to an optimum fit for the environment? Europeans must be satisfied with their yellow fall leaves and no native reds at this season compared with the hot colors we enjoy most years in eastern North America and Asia. Are there any bright theories out there?

About Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in human and animal reproduction & embryology. Academic career spanned from Cambridge and Edinburgh to McGill and Cornell's Weill Medical College in Manhattan where he was Professor & Research Director. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America, he retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and to recover from 'nature deficit disorder'
This entry was posted in Environment, Nature, Seasons in Virginia and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Fall Colors in Appalachia

  1. laura lecce says:

    Hi Roger,
    I loved reading your post. It really made me think about the natural selection of leaf color in general and although I have no ground breaking theories, I wondered whether the variety in fall colors across the trees could also involve naturally occurring genetic mutations within tree species. Or that the natural selection that occurred to select for the tree populations around today happened so long ago that we can’t possibly understand the reasons given our very short time on earth compared with the trees. It is cool to wonder, and I agree that mystery is sacred, it’s humbling that humans will never truly understand everything.
    Laura

    • Roger Gosden says:

      Laura. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I didn’t mention genetic variation across the range but you are right there are likely clines of continuous variation from random mutations that have taken hold over time where they fit. The turbulence of nature is good and bad, and change occurs continuously even if we don’t notice in our limited span. I find that a comforting lesson for times when I am feeling downcast about ugly “mutations” in human society and politics because, even though I have to live with change, I know nothing sticks forever and that gives hope of something better one day.

      • laura lecce says:

        That’s a great way to think about life and to stay positive, everything is definitely transient for better or for worse. Have a great week Roger.

  2. tonytomeo says:

    You know, I asked a colleague about what you asked in the last paragraph; why we have only yellow color in California, with only a bit or orange, and a bit of orange and red in the poison oak. I have discussed the reasons for variations in the shades of green, but not autumn color.

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