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Science and the Environment

The Science and Beauty of the Fall Colors

Gorgeous fall leaves in yellows and reds-- Photo Credit: Brian Richardson via Flickr

There’s a saying that “good things come to those who wait.”  This fall, that saying rings true as leaves are changing color a little later than usual.  Experts say, however, that this fall has the right conditions for producing spectacular colors and is worth the wait.  KSMU’s Theresa Bettmann has details.

Each year many people look forward to the brilliant fall colors throughout the Ozarks.  But just why are leaves so important; and what makes them change color?

Francis Scalicky is with the Missouri Department of Conservation.  He says that all year long leaves are an important part of the tree life cycle process, collecting moisture and carbon dioxide.  Scalicky says that the fall color change is one of the first steps before what is known as “leaf drop.”

“Imagine if you would put clothes on in the spring and not take those clothes off until the fall.  They would be pretty worn out.  And that’s what’s happening with leaves,” says Scalicky.

Trees lose their leaves in the fall to make way for new, fresh leaves in the spring.  Colors which begin to emerge as fall progresses are caused by what’s going on inside of the leaf.

“As far as colors are concerned, you have a couple of things going on.  The chlorophyll is the green coloring which breaks down in the leaf.  The yellow, which is a called carotenoid, remains there.  Species like hickory, cottonwoods, maple, ash, are some common species in this area,” Scalicky says.

And what about the red leaves?

“The reds are basically caused by a sugar called anthocyanin. The pigment is not present through the growing season, but develops in late summer in the sap of the cells.  And the formation of the anthocyanins depends on the amount of sugar in the leaf and the weather conditions,” says Scalicky.

The weather this fall is optimal for lasting colors, says Scalicky, with its cool nights and warm sunny days.  He adds that although the change is occurring later this fall, the moist spring and summer months, along with overall milder weather, may be the reason.

Whether you enjoy walking in your neighborhood, or partaking in scenic drives, click here for the latest information about weekly “fall color forecasts.”