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Expert explains what conditions create the best fall foliage

Published: Sep. 28, 2020 at 8:20 AM EDT
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STOWE, Vt. (WCAX) - This time of year the Green Mountain State transforms into the multicolor mountain state, and we are beginning to see more and more color daily.

“As I say, the trees know what they are doing, they have been doing this dance for millions of years,” said Vermont Forestry Commissioner Michael Snyder.

When planning for leaf-peeping, he says patience is key. “Things are looking really nice, shaping up well, all the factors for a good season are in place, those that come before the fall,” said Snyder.

He says a dry spring, good tree growing season, and shortening day length set the course, then, it’s up to the weather. “The onset of sort of fall conditions triggers the trees to think, we gotta get ready for winter. And that’s what really triggers the physiological changes that result in beautiful color development," said Snyder.

He says although this has been happening for millions of years, no two trees are ever alike. Even trees of the same species next to each other can produce different colors at different times because of soil conditions or even sunlight.

The current dry fall we are having shouldn’t play a huge role in the changing colors and Snyder says there really isn’t a late or early color change. “I like to say, trust the trees. It’s wonderful that people have their own idea of when it should be and what it should be but there is a range because it’s so tied to the weather conditions,” he said.

Snyder says now that the trees are ready to pop, warm weather creeping into the fall could result in delayed changes and full color would be in mid to late October.

A few cold snaps and frost could speed the process up. But he cautions Vermonters and visitors not to get to attached to a timeline and instead enjoy the beauty Vermont has to offer. “I have noticed though, we talk about peak and we all generally know what we are saying to each other, everyone has a different aesthetic sensibility, so I like to say, ‘find your peak,’" said Snyder.

WHAT CREATES THE COLOR?

The green comes from the chlorophyll in the leaves of deciduous or broadleaf trees, like the maple.

But as the trees notice winter coming in late summer, they prep for the winter months and they start to break down that chlorophyll and it reveals flares of yellows and oranges.

As the cold temperatures creep in at night, Snyder says it triggers a chemical called anthocyanin, which in-season produces those bright reds and that is thought to play a protective role for the leaves.

All that stretched out over time, and as trees head into different phases at different times gives us what we consider to be the peak.

Snyder says regardless of color and timeline, it’s always good to sit back and take it all in. “We’re proud of this backdrop and it contributes to our livability and quality of life. I love that fall is a time that the trees take center stage. It’s easy to take them for granted, the Green Mountain State and for a few weeks in fall, it becomes the multicolor mountains for which we are rightfully proud because we think we have the world’s best foliage. I like to look at it as a reminder of how lovely we are to live in such a special place,” said Snyder.

He says Vermont is also lucky that a lot of what we know about leaf changes and features has actually been discovered by scientists right here in Vermont.

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