Monday, September 12, 2016

The Dry Weather And Adirondack Fall Foliage

DSCN4905It turns out that, in terms of fall foliage, the color of too dry is officially known as “blah.” This would undoubtedly be the least popular color selection if it was included in a jumbo pack of Crayolas. Basically, it is a jumble of faded hues with a mottled brown patina throughout. This year’s dry summer could mean that “blah” may feature prominently in Mother Nature’s fall hardwood forest palette.

Why would a prolonged lack of moisture affect autumn color? Let’s look at what makes leaves colorful in the first place. Among the things we learned — and probably forgot right away — in Junior High Biology is that leaves are green because of chlorophyll, the amazing molecule that converts light, water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen. Its intense green tends to mask colors such as orange and yellow that are present in leaves in lower concentrations. When chlorophyll dies off in the fall, those “weaker” colors are revealed.

It’s not like yellow and orange are just randomly painted on the insides of leaves, though. Molecules other than chlorophyll are involved in various metabolic pathways within a leaf, and they happen to be colorful. By comparison, we are boring. Our hemoglobin is red, at least in the presence of oxygen, but we are not as flamboyant on a cellular level as leaves are.

Red, however, is a horse of a different color where leaves are concerned. Trees spend energy that they would otherwise save for next year’s growth to make the molecule responsible for red. It is called anthocyanin, mostly because short words embarrass scientists, and it is “expensive” for trees to make. No one knows why trees do this. OK, there are some explanations out there, but they are so flimsy they don’t even hold up in the rain.

In wintertime, I make my own bread. Although quality varies because I never use a recipe, more than likely the bread would turn out worse than usual if I omitted water. Similarly, all the ingredients need to be there for photosynthesis to work properly. When water is in short supply, production at the sugar factory, also known as the chlorophyll molecule, drops off sharply.

Without sugars, many cellular processes slow or even stop. Damaged chlorophyll is not replaced, and that deep forest-green color starts to pale. Those yellow and orange molecules (xanthophylls and carotenes, if you are insecure about word length) also begin to disappear.

As trees dry out further, their leaves start to brown along their edges. This is called marginal scorching, not to be confused with marginally scorched, which describes my bread. In drought-prone locations with thin soils, some tree leaves will entirely brown and turn crisp, calling it quits for the year. This of course is not good for trees, because they are not able to plug up the vascular connections between leaves and twigs, making them prone to even more desiccation over the winter.

As if that isn’t enough sepia tones for one season, our sugar maples once again are looking tawdry due to yet another infestation of the native maple leafcutter. This is a tiny colorful moth whose newly hatched larvae eat circular patterns inside leaves, eventually getting big enough to emerge onto the leaf surface and excise little holes in it to make a mini turtle-shell case for itself. A single infestation causes only minor harm to the maples, but repeated infestations can weaken them somewhat.

Between marginal scorch, brown leaves, holey maples and a general shortage of leaf pigments, we might not get the brightest display this fall. Cool nights and sunny days tend to favor the production of red in the few tree species capable of producing it, and this could at least offset the brown tinge that infuses our woodlands at present. Here’s hoping for a good crayon selection this autumn.

Photo by Shannon Houlihan.

Editor’s Note: The leaves are just beginning to turn in the Adirondack High Peaks, where 5-10% change was reported September 8th.

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

7 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Paul, Good story. I think you mean Carotenoids (Carotene is one of them)!

  2. Justin Farrell says:

    Agreed. Nice, informative peice!
    Then again, many people said the same about last fall, which I thought turned out quite nice. Sure, the peak was couple weeks late & perhaps a tad less spectacular than in previous years, but still quite nice IMHO.
    – Justin

  3. Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Great article. Thanks Paul.

  4. Josh Szwed says:

    As a science teacher, I’m a bit put off by your snarky comments about how we “probably forgot” about chlorophyll “right away,” and how scientists are “embarrassed” by “short words.” I’m not sure why it’s necessary to take shots at science and science education in this article; especially when explaining the science behind such an amazing natural phenomenon. It’s the prevalence of hostility toward science and math being “too hard” or “not useful in the real world” that we teachers have to combat in our classrooms. Let’s not take unecessary pot shots at science or math. Thank you.

  5. Paul Hetzler says:


    I see how one might take it the way you did, and i apologize for having put you off. My remarks are intended as self-deprecation, as I can be an insufferable smarty-pants, jargon-spouting science nerd at times. In fact I love science, and have all the respect in the world for it. My articles are pitched to a broad audience, my hope being that humor and humility will reach people who may normally not read about these topics. I want to “convert” those who are intimidated by, ambivalent toward, or even hostile to, science.

    • Taras says:

      Thanks for the informative article.

      I agree with Mr. Szwed that there’s no need to promote disparaging stereotypes about science or teachers of science.

      “Among the things we learned — and probably forgot right away — in Junior High Biology”

      How is “we” *self*-deprecating?

      “Among the things I learned – and forgot right away — in Junior High Biology”

      That’s self-deprecating. Except you probably didn’t forget about chlorophyll so your original statement was hardly self-deprecating.

      Scientists are “embarrassed by short words”? Perhaps they’re not alone: perichondrial, debenture, tortfeasor, etc.

  6. Natty Bumpo says:

    Keep up the good work. Your writing is doing just as you intend, in my opinion. I am a biologist by trade and have been emailing links to your posts to my children for some time, one of whom is just now taking high school biology. I look forward to more of the same from you.

    Try a little more offense and a little less defense. Bring light to the application of science in the real world. It will be interesting to students, and by that way – easier. We scientists could all take a lesson from Mr.Hetzler.

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