View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Our friend Abhijit Patil captured this image via drone from northeastern Vermont on September 29, 2019. He wrote: “The brilliance is back for the season!” Thank you, Abhijit! to find his forecast for autumn color in the area. Image via Abhijit Patil.
Throughout the spring and summer, the deep green color of chlorophyll, which helps plants absorb life-giving sunlight, hides any other colors present in the leaves of trees. The vivid yellows and oranges of fall leaves are there, but hidden. In the fall, trees break down the green pigments and nutrients stored in their leaves. The nutrients are shuttled into the tree’s roots for reuse in the spring. It’s then that the trees take on their autumn hues.
As leaves lose their chlorophyll, other pigments become visible to the human eye, according to Bryan A. Hanson, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at DePauw University who studies plant pigments. Some tree leaves turn mostly brown, indicating that all pigments are gone.
A 2017 photo of leaves popping with color, from Scott Kuhn in North Georgia.
Autumn 2016 in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Photo via Jessi Leigh.
Autumn leaves at Hurricane Mountain in the Adirondacks, New York, 2014. Photo via John Holmes.
Autumn leaf in about mid-September 2011, from our friend Colin Chatfield in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Steven Arthur Sweet captured this image at Centennial Park in Toronto, Canada, in 2016.
Burgundy and red colors are a different story. Dana A. Dudle is a DePauw professor of biology who researches red pigment in plant flowers, stems and leaves. Dudle said:
The red color is actively made in leaves by bright light and cold. The crisp, cold nights in the fall combine with bright, sunny days to spur production of red in leaves – especially in sugar maple and red maple trees. Burgundy leaves often result from a combination of red pigment and chlorophyll. Autumn seasons with a lot of sunny days and cold nights will have the brightest colors.
2009 image via treehouse1977.
In some cases, about half of a tree’s leaves are red/orange and the other half green. Dudle says that results from micro-environmental factors – such as only half the tree being exposed to sunlight or cold.
Hardwoods in the Midwest and on the East Coast are famous for good color selections. Some of the more reliably colorful trees, Hanson notes, are liquidambar trees (also called sweetgum) that turn a variety of colors on the same tree, and sometimes the same leaf. Ash tree leaves often turn a deep burgundy color. Ginkgo trees, although not native to North America, will feature an intense yellow, almost golden, color.
A lone red tree against bare branches, in 2013. Photo via Daniel de Leeuw Photog.
Autumn in Sweden, 2013, from our friend Jörgen Norrland.
The colors are doing something for the plant, or they wouldn’t be there, said Hansen. But what is the colors’ purpose?
Scientists think that with some trees, pigments serve as a kind of sunscreen to filter out sunlight. Hanson said:
It’s an underappreciated fact that plants cannot take an infinite amount of sun. Some leaves, if they get too much sun, will get something equivalent of a sunburn. They get stressed out and die.
Image via Tosca Yemoh Zanon in London, 2013.
Another theory is that the color of a plant’s leaves is often related to the ability to warn away pests or attract insect pollinators. Hanson said:
In some cases, a plant and insect might have co-evolved. One of the more intriguing scientific theories is that the beautiful leaf colors we see today are indicative of a relationship between a plant and insects that developed millions of years ago. However, as the Earth’s climate changed over the years, the insects might have gone extinct, but the plant was able to survive for whatever reason.
Because plants evolve very slowly, we still see the colors. So leaf color is a fossil memory, something that existed for a reason millions of years ago but that serves no purpose now.
Early October 2011 in Hibbing, Minnesota. Photo via EarthSky Facebook friend Rosalbina Segura.
Bottom line: Biologists discuss why leaves change color in the fall.
Read more from DePauw University
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Fall brings some spectacular views of trees, with their leaves turning hues of orange, yellow, red, purple and brown. But their changing colors provide more than just pretty sights — they can also serve as a marker to help you know what kind of tree you’re looking at. Here are a few trees that might be easier to spot in fall.
Honey locust tree
The tiny leaves of a honey locust tree turn golden yellow in fall. (Image credit: Rachael Rettner for Live Science)
The honey locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos) grows across the United States, and is most concentrated in the central part of the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It has compound leaves, meaning a single leaf stalk contains a number of smaller “leaflets.” The honey locust leaflets are quite small, about 0.3 to 1.5 inches long and 0.2 to 0.5 inches wide. The tree can have 15 to 30 of these leaflets per stalk, according to Utah State University. In the fall, these leaves turn from green to golden yellow. When this tree is covered in these tiny yellow leaves, you can guess how it got its common name. The honey locust tree is the most common street tree in Manhattan; so if you visit the Big Apple this fall, look for these golden trees lining the streets.
In the summer, the baldcypress (Taxodium distichum) looks like an evergreen tree — that is, it has green needlelike leaves and grows cones. But in the fall, its leaves turn red-orange and eventually fall off. This tree is a deciduous conifer, which loses its leaves in the winter. The baldcypress is found throughout the United States, and does well in city conditions, according to the Arbor Day Foundation.
The red maple (Acer rubrum) is one of the most abundant trees in Eastern North America, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Its leaves have three lobes, and in the summer, they are green on one side and a paler color on the back. In the fall, this tree lives up to its name, with its leaves turning a deep-red color (although the leaves can turn yellow and orange, too).
The fruit of a goldenrain tree turns a pink or brown color in autumn. (Image credit: Rachael Rettner for Live Science)
The goldenrain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata) is native to China and Korea, but can grow in much of the United States as well. Its leaves are deeply serrated (like the teeth of a saw), and are irregularly lobed, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation. (The leaves look like they’ve been “pinched-in” in parts.) But if the leaves — which turn yellow in fall — don’t give this tree away, its fruit will. The goldenrain tree fruit is a papery capsule that looks a bit like a small pepper or a Chinese lantern. The fruit starts off green, but in the fall, turns a pink or brown color.
The leaves of the green ash tree turn yellow in early fall. (Image credit: Rachael Rettner for Live Science)
The green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) is native to the Eastern and Central United States and Canada, and is popular partly because of its resistance to insects and diseases, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It is one of the first trees to change color in the fall, with its leaves turning yellow in September, according to the USDA. In contrast, the related white ash tree, which is very similar in appearance otherwise, can have orange, red and purple leaves in the fall.
A number of trees have edible fruits that ripen in the fall, which provide another identifying factor. In fact, the word harvest comes from the Old English word “haerfest,” which means autumn. Apple trees, plum trees and hawthorn trees — which produce small red berries — all have fruit that is ripe in the fall, according to the BBC.
Follow Rachael Rettner @RachaelRettner. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.
- 8 Trees that Flaunt Brilliant Fall Color
- Red Fall Leaves: Learn About Trees With Red Foliage In Fall
- Red Fall Leaves
- Trees That Turn Red in Autumn
- Japanese Encyclopedia: Momijigari (“Admiring Autumn Leaves”)
- Momijigari – See the Fall Leaves in Japan
- The Origins of Momijigari
- The Science Behind Autumn Leaves
- Famous Autumn Leaf Spots In Japan
8 Trees that Flaunt Brilliant Fall Color
Autumn is “leaf season,” nature’s annual color festival. Environmental factors and the genetic makeup of the trees determine the intensity and times of peak color, with factors varying from tree to tree and region to region.
Here are 8 of our favorite trees for fall color. These trees will also provide spring color, shade, privacy, and wildlife habitat.
Called “one of the best and most consistent native trees for fall color” by tree expert Michael Dirr, the black tupelo is a terrific landscaping choice. Displaying various hues of yellow, orange, bright red and purple—often on the same branch—its foliage is a stand-out of the autumn season. Even the distinctive bark, which resembles alligator hide, adds visual and textural interest.
And while its blooms may not seem noteworthy, bees will be very appreciative of the presence of this tree, as it serves as an important late-spring food source.
Hardiness zones 4-9.
Hailed as “undoubtedly one of the most distinct and beautiful of all deciduous trees,” the ginkgo certainly stands out. Unique, fan-shaped leaves turn a stunning yellow color in the fall. It can tolerate many urban conditions including heat, air pollution, salt and confined spaces. And it establishes easily.
This tree also comes with a bit of history. It is a living fossil, with the earliest leaf fossils dating from 270 million years ago.
Hardiness zones 3-8.
A stately, strong and long-lived tree with beautiful fall color, the Shumard oak is a great selection for yards. This adaptable species has been successfully grown in urban areas where air pollution, poor drainage, compacted soil, and/or drought are common, making it a fine choice for street trees as well.
While this tree is favored by homeowners, deer and squirrels also love its small acorns.
Hardiness zones 5-9.
Read: Tree Care Tips for Fall Planting
Red Rocket crapemyrtle
Lagerstroemia indica ‘Whit IV’
This stunning shrub is renowned for its showy flowers, beautiful bark, fast growth and tolerance of soil conditions. The petals are wrinkled like crepe paper, adding to its appeal. The red rocket crapemyrtle also adds ornamental value to landscaping in all seasons, and it is considered one of the fastest growing crapemyrtles—shooting up as much as 5′ per year.
Whether you’re looking for a standalone plant or something to incorporate as part of a mixed border, the red rocket crapemyrtle could be the answer.
Hardiness zones 7-9.
Drought-resistant. Tolerant of pollution. Adaptable to a variety of soils. With its reputation as a tough species, the Kentucky coffeetree is an excellent choice for parks, golf courses and other large areas. It is also widely used as an ornamental or street tree.
The tree’s picturesque profile stands out in all seasons and can be attributed to a unique growth habit of coarse, ascending branches that often form a narrow crown. Tree expert Michael Dirr pointed out that there are “certainly no two exactly alike.”
Hardiness zones 3-8.
The sugar maple is one of America’s best-loved trees. In fact, more states have claimed it as their state tree than any other single species—for New York, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Vermont, the Maple Tree stands alone.
While commercially planted for its delicious syrup and value as lumber, this maple tree makes a great addition to any yard or park. And one of its most prominent features is amazing fall color. As the seasons change, the leaves turn vibrant shades of yellow, burnt orange and red.
Hardiness zones 3-8.
Read: Designing a Landscape with Trees
Red maple is one of the best named of all trees, featuring something red in each of the seasons—buds in winter, flowers in spring, leafstalks in summer, and brilliant foliage in autumn. This pageant of color, along with the red maple’s relatively fast growth and tolerance to a wide range of soils, makes it a widely planted favorite.
The natural range of red maple begins roughly at the eastern edge of the Great Plains north to Lake Superior, extending eastward to the Atlantic. But homeowners and urban foresters are growing this tree across the United States.
Hardiness zones 3-9.
John Ruter, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org
A medium-sized tree, the sourwood shines in the summer and fall. Its midsummer flowers appear like lilies-of-the-valley, are highly fragrant and contrast nicely against the green foliage. Then in the fall, leaves turn intensely beautiful shades of brilliant crimson, purplish-red and sometimes yellow. This tree shines in landscaping as a specimen in a lawn, a garden feature, an ornamental addition to larger trees or a clump in a large, open space.
And for honey lovers, the sourwood offers an additional bonus. Honey produced from the flowers of this tree is considered by many to be unmatched by clover, orange blossom, fireweed or any other honey.
Hardiness zones 5-9.
Red Fall Leaves: Learn About Trees With Red Foliage In Fall
Oh, the colors of fall. Gold, bronze, yellow, saffron, orange and, of course, red. Red fall leaves enrich the autumn palette and outfit the season in regal splendor. Numerous trees and shrubs can provide that searing scarlet or crimson cache to the home landscape. Trees that turn red in autumn span more than the lovely red maples into many more ornamental specimens. Many of these trees start out other colors but end up a decided red, amping up the color as the season progresses, only to pop out with a thrilling red finale.
Red Fall Leaves
Fall is one of the most beautiful and colorful seasons. It is a time for leaf maturity, but the death of the foliage is presaged by a gloriously painted landscape for several months. Many of the most colorful leaves are on the trees that turn red in autumn. Red colored tree leaves provide a startling contrast to many of the more common colors in nature.
The drab browns, humdrum grays and blacks and non-descript greens of the average landscape are suddenly transformed by a wild slash of intense fiery color. Adorn your landscape with trees with red fall foliage and make your garden the talk of the town.
Getting red fall leaves takes some pre-planning. While many trees have a successive color display that ends up red, having red leaves the entire season only happens to a few species. Graduated color displays are often some of the best, however, and if the ultimate result is some form of ruby, crimson or burgundy, then it was worth the wait.
Some of the best trees for graduated displays that finalize in a red hue might be Downy serviceberry, blackgum, persimmonand sassafras. The hues and tones of red vary from species to species. ‘Raywood’ ash has been described as having claret colored foliage while ‘Eddies White Wonder’ dogwood has been labeled strawberry red. Each tone in the family has a delicious difference while still screaming ‘red.’
What Causes Red Colored Tree Leaves?
In fall, as a tree begins to go dormant, the supply of chlorophyll running through the tree and its leaves begins to be blocked off. The lack of chlorophyll causes color changes in the leaves. Chlorophyll masks the other colors in the leaf and is usually the predominant color seen visually. When the green is not present, the other colors shine through.
Red fall leaves are caused by a pigment called anthocyanin, which also causes purple hues. These anthocyanins are produced by sugars trapped in leaves in fall. Unlike the other main plant pigments, anthocyanins are not present in most plants during the growing season. This can be confusing until you focus on the word “most.”
Red maples and several other plants have naturally occurring anthocyanins and red colored tree leaves at any time of the year.
Trees That Turn Red in Autumn
If you are captivated by the maroons, crimsons and cherry reds of fall, a list of trees with red fall foliage will help you as you search for that autumn color. The classic red maples seem to just get richer tones of red as the weather cools, while red oaks get a deeper wine colored red. Other trees with tones of red are:
- Black cherry
- Flowering dogwood
- White oak
- Black oak
- Winged sumac
Each one of these will produce an amazing red fall spectacle while providing other types of seasonal beauty year round.
The maple tree is the indisputable king of autumn colors. As a matter of fact, the word “autumn colors” (pronounced: koyo) is written with the same kanji characters as the word “maple tree” (pronounced: momiji). Maple trees are native to Japan and can be seen in their wild form in forests. Furthermore, humans have cultivated over a hundred varieties of maple trees over the centuries for decorative use.
It is some of these cultivated maple tree varieties that come with the most brilliant autumn colors, turning gradually from a beautiful green into yellow, orange and finally a shiny red. Maple trees are used widely in Japanese gardens, and the temples and traditional gardens of Kyoto are some of the best places to admire them. But they are also encountered in forests, mountains and city parks.
Icho Namiki (Ginkgo Avenue) in Tokyo
Arguably the second most popular tree for autumn colors is the ginkgo (Japanese: icho). The leaves of the ginkgo trees do not turn red. Instead they turn into one of the most brilliant yellow colors that nature has to offer. Ginkgo trees are more easily found in temples, shrines, urban parks and along city streets than in nature. The Metropolis of Tokyo has chosen the ginkgo as its symbol tree.
The variety of trees found in the mountains naturally differs somewhat from that found in the cities and gardens, especially in the higher elevations. The king of autumn colors in the higher elevations of mountainous Japan is the nanakamado (Japanese Rowan), a shrub whose leaves behave similarly spectacular as the leaves of the maple tree. The nanakamado offers particularly nice sights above the tree line where the shrub sometimes monopolizes entire mountain slopes.
Nanakamado shrubs in Daisetsuzan National Park
Another beautiful tree in the higher elevations is the Japanese larch (karamatsu), the only conifer to change colors (and lose its needle shaped leaves) in autumn. The larch tree rivals the ginkgo tree with its brilliant yellow colors.
Among the many other trees and shrubs found in Japan, some produce nice autumn colors, while others go directly from green into an unremarkable brown. Among the more attractive other trees are the Japanese zelkova (keyaki), the beech (buna), the horse chestnut (tochinoki), various vines, the birch (shirakaba), the Japanese lacquer tree (urushi) and rhododendron (tsutsuji). The leaves of cherry trees (sakura) also changes into a reddish orange, but not a particularly brilliant one.
A final contributor to autumn colors are grasses. Known as kusamomiji (grass autumn colors), some types of grasses in marshlands and on mountainous plains and slopes can provide attractive yellow colors that sometimes fade into a fascinating red. The marshland of Oze National Park is one of the nicest places to enjoy autumnal grass.
Colorful grass in Oze National Park
Japanese Encyclopedia: Momijigari (“Admiring Autumn Leaves”)
Momijigari – See the Fall Leaves in Japan
Photo by pixta
One of the best aspects of travel in Japan is enjoying the natural beauty of the four seasons. Autumn is known for its especially nice weather, and is a season when one can taste many delicious foods, making it a great time for sightseeing.
The greatest appeal is the red and yellow autumn leaves of the broadleaf trees. Today we’ll be explaining a Japanese custom called “momijigari”, which literally means “autumn leaf hunting”. The word refers to the occasion when people walk around to admire the beautiful autumn leaves.
The Origins of Momijigari
The “gari (kari)” of “momijigari” means “hunting”. Why does Japan call the act of admiring the autumn leaves “hunting”?
Originally, “kari” refers to the act of capturing wild beasts, but it came to be used as a word for catching smaller animals and wild birds, and even harvesting plants. There are also Japanese words like “kudamono gari” (fruit hunting) and “shiohigari” (clam hunting).
Over time the word became used for admiring plants, thus the name “momijigari”. It is said that nobles who didn’t actually hunt went out into the hills and fields to “hunt” for plants.
The Science Behind Autumn Leaves
There are trees with leaves that change colors in the fall and others that don’t. The colors of the leaves also vary from yellow to red and orange. The trees that have leaves that change color are called deciduous trees, and lose their leaves in the winter. Examples of deciduous trees are the maple, Japanese beech (buna), and ginkgo (maidenhair tree). Evergreen trees like the cedar and pine tree don’t lose their leaves and have the same color throughout the year.
Trees that lose leaves start getting ready to pass the winter by stopping the water supply to their leaves in the fall. The green pigment in leaves are destroyed and the red and yellow colors that were hard to see until then become more visible. The changing of color seems to begin when the morning temperature reaches about 6 to 7 degrees Celsius.
Famous Autumn Leaf Spots In Japan
About 70% of Japan is covered in forests, and various deciduous trees can be found around the country. The difference in temperature in the fall is also very large, creating a perfect environment for beautiful autumn leaves.
There are many famous spots for viewing these autumn leaves throughout Japan. Okutama and Meijijingu Gaien are famous spots in the Tokyo area. In Kyoto, Arashiyama and Tofukuji Temple are highly popular. At Arashiyama, you can enjoy a magnificent view of the autumn leaves at Hozukyo Gorge from a trolley train.
If you’re visiting Japan mid November to early December, we highly recommend you go admire the autumn leaves. We guarantee that “hunting” for these beautiful views will become a great memory of your trip.