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Wisconsin’s trees are starting to paint hillsides, trails, shorelines, parks and backyards into an autumn kaleidoscope, and state forestry officials say if the weather cooperates it could be a spectacular fall color season.
Unlike last year — when parts of Wisconsin saw scattered trees turning color prematurely and even drop their leaves in mid-August due to the dry summer — this year trees have enjoyed adequate rainfall and have grown beautiful and healthy foliage.
“As the days get shorter, and the nights longer and cooler, the fall colors will begin developing. Ideal conditions for a brilliant fall color season include warm sunny days with cool nights,” said Bill McNee, a forest health specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
While predicting the arrival of fall color is challenging because the weather is in control, McNee says so far it looks like the season appears to be on target for its usual run of about September 10 to mid-October.
“Last year trees without enough water started to shut down early to reduce further water losses. This means they went through color change earlier than they normally would. When there is a lot of rain and plenty of water for the trees, the colors can be delayed by a little bit – about a week,” Mc Nee said.
Some northern area trees are already starting to show some signs of color, says Carmen Hardin, DNR forestry management section chief.
“While the main show for fall leaves is still ahead, these trees with early color are most likely under some stress — maybe from wet soils with recent rains or damage from bugs, she said.
McNee adds he has spotted trees turning color in west central areas. “And that also is possibly due to stress.”
Wisconsin tourism officials at Travel Wisconsin say the foliage colors are nature’s free show for residents and the always-welcome tourists. So popular is this annual season that Travel Wisconsin hosts its own fall color report (exit DNR) where in-state travelers and visitors can click on a map of the state to get the latest updates on fall color in that location.
Why do trees turn color?
When you strip away the green and all the gorgeous color appears, you’re left with the question ‘why?’ Why do the trees do this amazing magic trick every year? McNee gives this brief explanation:
In late summer, broadleaved trees respond to lengthening nights and cooling temperatures by reducing levels of a green pigment known as ‘chlorophyll’ that is used in photosynthesis (the production of sugars in the leaves).
This unmasks orange and yellow ‘carotenoid’ pigments that are also present in the leaves, giving them time to show off.
Red and purple fall colors have a different origin, and are due to ‘anthocyanin’ pigments that are actively produced in late summer at the same time as the green ‘chlorophyll’ deteriorates.
The brightest red and purple colors appear when autumn days are bright and nights are chilly but not freezing, because these conditions increase production of the red and purple pigments. Orange and yellow colors tend to be fairly constant from year to year because the orange and yellow pigments are always present in the leaves.
“And while most focus on the brilliant colors of maple, aspen and oak,” Hardin adds, “don’t forget about surprising golden needles found on tamarack – a conifer that drops its needles every year.”
To learn more about the science, visit the DNR’s EEK page: Why Do Leaves Change Color?
Where to go for a view?
Anywhere in the state. It’s all a matter of keeping track where the color is traveling.
Keep in mind Wisconsin’s State Forests – Black River, Brule, Flambeau, Governor Knowles, Havenwoods, Northern Highland-American Legion, Point Beach, Peshtigo River, and Kettle Moraine’s four units. These are great for viewing. And there are parks, trails, nature areas and more. All are found by searching the DNR website for keywords “find a park.”
With the state trails and parks, picnics, hiking, boating, cycling and more will be even more enjoyable – if that’s possible – with such an incredible sea of color all around. Get out and enjoy Wisconsin in this transition season known for its incredible science show of color choreographed by Nature.