Fall color: It’s show time in Michigan!

Predicting fall color is tough since the genetics of the plant determine quality of color more than environmental conditions.

Michigan ranks as one of the top states for brilliant fall color. Our native maples, oaks and ash trees provide dazzling displays that can last up to eight weeks. Tree enthusiasts may be particularly fond of observing the sequence of fall color. In the early season, one will see black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica ) burst into a riot of crimson. This will quickly be followed by sugar maples peeling off multiple shades of red and harvest orange, and finally, the oaks that stubbornly bring forth their cinnamon browns. Across the state, this sequence comes in waves depending on the native clusters of species combined with seasonal weather patterns.

Bert Cregg, Michigan State University professor of horticulture and forestry says he frequently gets asked the question, “How brilliant will the fall display be this year?” Last year’s heat and dry weather launched the fall color gurus into false predictions of poor color, only to be blown away by the brilliance of it all. Cregg says that no concrete science has gone into the prediction game although there are some horticultural reasons why leaves change color.

It’s all in the genes

Cregg cites basic plant science principles noting there are three pigments in leaves. The quantity of each pigment responsible for brilliant fall colors depends on the species of tree far more than environmental conditions. The pigment we are most familiar with is chlorophyll, the green stuff. However, the leaf also houses other pigments which help the plant absorb a greater spectrum of the sun’s natural energy. Carotenoids, which give the characteristic yellow fall color, are also present along with chlorophyll. The last pigment, anthocyanin, having a reddish-purple appearance, is largely produced in autumn. During the growing season, chlorophyll is produced in great abundance but it begins slowing down production as light levels decrease in autumn. As the green pigment dissipates, the other colors make their glorious debut.

Check out the fall color and plan which trees to plant next year

Fall is also a time to plan what trees you will plant next year, says Cregg. Certain species are noted for autumn brilliance such as the maple, but Cregg encourages home gardeners to think outside of the box. To create truly a four-season landscape, he says; choose selections that have been tried and true. One of Cregg’s favorites is the black tupelo, also known as Nyssa sylvatica.

 Black tupelo fall colors
Fall color of the black tupelo, Nyssa
. Photo credit: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

This native species tends to be a bit smaller and as mentioned before puts on the “early show” in a landscape. The glossy green leaves of summer turn brilliant crimson with shades of burgundy and orange toward the center of the tree. In the native landscape, you might find this clump-forming tree revealing shades of autumn as early as late August in the southern part of Michigan.

Another landscape specimen Cregg suggests is the sweetgum ((Liquidambar styraciflua). Native to the Appalachian region, sweetgum is known for its long lasting fall color later in the season. The attractive, star-shaped leaves can display brilliant yellows on the interior of the tree with deepening shades of burgundy at the tips of the leaves and the outer shell. The effect is stunning. Its upright habit makes this tree a great selection for this area.

Sweetgum trees in fall color
Sweetgum trees show off their red fall colors. Photo credit: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

Lastly, Cregg’s unsung hero and a rather late performer is the scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea). Its deep green, glossy foliage turns a perfect crimson just in time for late-season football games. Cregg cites some mature specimens on Michigan State University’s campus and as an experimental plot in southwestern Michigan that has been performing well and says they are very adaptable for our area. Scarlet oak is somewhat slow growing, but will make a lasting impression for generations to come.

A website on alternatives to the ash tree and recommendations for Michigan’s Lower Peninsula was launched to help people make smart selections of landscape trees. At this website, www.hrt.msu.edu/ashalt, PDF files can be downloaded of tree profiles.  You can also find the Michigan State University Extension bulletin E-2925, “Recommended Alternatives to Ash Trees for Michigan’s Lower Peninsula,” at the MSU Extension Bookstore.

Finally, the crystal ball

As to the predicting, Cregg says that areas of the state that have received adequate rainfall will enjoy a gorgeous fall this year. Other areas where it has been droughty will see some tree species drop leaves before they turn color. Rain showers have been spotty Up North so instead of the long lasting “great balls of fire” we are used to the color sequence may be more of a “flash in the pan.” As with previous seasons however, Cregg is sticking to his story to “just wait and see!”

For more information on a wide variety of garden topics, you can log onto www.migarden.msu.edu or contact MSU Extension’s toll-free garden hotline at 1-888-678-3464 with any of your questions.

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