Fall Color Display: No More Cover-Up

The spectacular color displays observed in autumn in Ohio is actually a sugar related cover-up. We enjoy stunning exhibits of a variety of colors from deciduous plants in the eastern United States; only Japan, the British Isles, west central Europe and eastern China have similar, but muted displays. Reds (sumac, maples, Virginia creeper, poison ivy), oranges (maples, sweet gum, sassafras), yellows (maples, elm, ash), purples (ash, viburnum), golds (birch, sycamore, aspen) and bronzes (basswood, beech) delight our visual senses and paint a fabulous living mural.

Shorter days and longer nights trigger a warning signal in woody ornamentals that winter is coming and the plants must stop using so much water. Leaves transpire (release) a lot of water from their surfaces and,

These give leaf colors from yellow to mahogany and from crimson to orange, yet they are not responsible for the intensity of the fall colors. Only when the corky cells have done their job of plugging up the plumbing do the anthocynanin pigments show up. These chemicals are actually made from the breakdown of chlorophyll and glucose (a type of sugar). The more sugar left in the leaf in the fall, the brighter the color. For the leaf color to be the best, anthocyanins must be made quickly and completely. This happens when the days are bright and sunny and the nights are cool. In the years of early hard frosts, the color is not as stunning, since many leaves are killed and turn brown overnight.

The most amazing aspect of this whole story concerns the beneficiaries. The color changes to not appear to help the plant survive the winter better no with next season’s growth. This beauty has been made for your pleasure by a wonderfully creative God. “He has made everything beautiful in his Time; He has also set eternity in the hearts of men, so that no man can find out the entirety of the work that God makes from the beginning to the end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11. 

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