Photo by Melody

"Magical Colors" (Mommy, Why Do the Leaves Change Color?)

By Jacqueline Cross (libelluleSeptember 8, 2013

The air is crisp, the sky is blue and you are surrounded by more brilliant colors than you could have imagined. Is it worth the trip? You bet it is. Buy a huge memory card for that camera and plan to stay at least a week. You'll need plenty of time to soak it all in before you head back home.

Gardening picture

(Editor's Note:  This article was originally published on September 9, 2008. Your questions and comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)

There is nothing more beautiful in nature than when the crisp air descends upon the mountains, and the leaves on the trees begin to change colors. For me, this is the most beautiful time of year. It is magical. The way nature changes from season to season. There is no season more wondrous than when the earth gets ready for a long winter sleep; this is the time of year that we are treated to a fantastic color show.


Photo courtesy of bosela at morguefile

Photo courtesy of bosela at morguefile

Living in Florida, we are not able to experience the huge stands of trees and shrubs changing colors as far as the eye can see. However, we do have a some trees and shrubs growing in the southern states that give a bit of color in the fall. Trees such as the Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), Chinese Tallow (Sapium sebiferum), Wild Cherry (Prunus serotina), Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea). Also, shrubs like Oak Leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), Sweetspire (Itea virginica), Bridal Wreath Spirea (Spirea prunifolia) and Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia). These are only a few that can be planted in the South, specifically in Florida, for fall color.

Photo courtesy of mimiliz at morguefile


This is why the Great Smoky Mountain State Park--and other parks like it--are lined with vehicles every autumn. A large number of the license plates on those cars are from Florida. Those who love the beaches, warm sunny weather and tropical plants growing in their own back yards, show up in droves to view the amazing display put on by nature once a year.


Photo courtesy of forghis at morguefile

When my children were young, they asked why the leaves changed color before falling off the trees. Not being a science major, I gave them one of those ‘Mommy' answers. All mothers have had occasion to reply this way with inquisitive children. They are the answers you give when you really do not know the answer. You, of course, then go to the library or internet and find the correct answer for the next time they ask the same question. There is always a next time.

Photo courtesy of CarolinaJG at morguefile


What I told my children then, is that this is nature's way of dressing for bedtime. It is like when they put their pajamas on before they lay down for a long night of sleep. Nature dresses the trees up in beautiful pajamas just before the long sleep of winter. It made sense to the little ones and they later learned why leaves change color in the fall, the real answer.


Photo courtesy of earl53 at morguefile

I learned in grade school the real reason leaves change colors in the fall, but that had been many years before. Like so many other things from school, it was not easily retrieved from my memory. Since it was something I would need to know for the next time I was asked, I went straight to a science book to find the answer. I do not remember which book. It has been twenty or more years.

Photo courtesy of mimiliz at morguefile


Air temperature, rainfall amounts, food storage and the length of time the sun is in the sky every day, all play a part in leaves changing colors.

The plants need three additional things to come together along with the above mentioned. We'll call these pigments, since this is what creates the brilliant colors we ultimately see.

As we learned in grade school, chlorophyll gives leaves their green color. Photosynthesis is the process by which plants use light from the sun to turn carbon dioxide and water in the plant, into sugars. The plant will then store these sugars for food through the winter.

Carotenoids produce the orange you see in carrots, as well as other plants. It is also responsible for the yellow color in corn.

Anthocyanins delivers the gorgeous colors we find in red apples and strawberries. It also gives us the darker colors in plums and blueberries.


Photo courtesy of hotblack at morguefile

Photo courtesy of hotblack at morguefile

Throughout the spring and summer, plants continually produce and break down chlorophyll. Again, this is what makes the leaf green. In fall, the daylight hours are shorter, less sunlight means production of chlorophyll is slowed and eventually stops.

Photo courtesy of GeekPhilosopher

Once the chlorophyll is destroyed, it is time for the carotenoids and anthocyanins to step up to the plate. They have been right there in the leaves, waiting their turn to show, and show they will! It is due to these two 'pigments' that we have such brilliant colors to enjoy every fall.

Of course, it takes more than these three things to create the celebrated colors. Plants also need a good balance of tempature and moisture for it all to come together.

Photo courtesy of Kettu at morguefile


This begins early in the year. Average rainfall is important for a good fall foliage coverage. By the time fall rolls around, a mix of warm, sun filled days and shorter, cool nights will help to give the best display.

Conditions will vary each year. Some years will be better than others for color. Even when conditions are not optimal for the best color, it is still worth a trip to the mountains.


Photo courtesy of bosela at morguefile

Photo courtesy of bosela at morguefile


Happy Gardening~

A good place to find out what plants grow and show well in the state of Florida, which is where I found the few plants I listed above, is Floridata.

Thumbnail photo from Geek Philosopher.
All other photographs are credited above.

All the photos in this article are not of the Smokies. They are only representative of the fall foliage that can be found there.

For information on trips to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park-
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
107 Park Headquarters Road
Gatlinburg, TN 37738
(865) 436-1200


  About Jacqueline Cross  
Jacqueline CrossI'm a native Floridian...feet planted in the shifting sands of northwest FL. but my heart strings are tightly knotted to the hills of Tennessee. I live with my poodle, Minnie Pearl, Zsa Zsa the cat who runs the whole show and a new addition, Kitty Belle. I'm a writer, gardener, quilter, cross stitcher, soapmaker and nature lover. Mother to 3 wonderful daughters & Nana to 6 perfect grandchildren. I also write for and was promoted to Feature Writer in the vegetable gardens section in 2008.

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