Watt, Why & How e-Newsletter

How Do They Do That? Fall Colors

AutumnThe splash of colors on autumn leaves is one the most beautiful images in nature. It can also leave parents fumbling for a response when children ask, "why do leaves change color?". You think it has something to do with shorter days and cooler weather, but maybe you're not exactly sure.

So, why do leaves change their hue? Scientists have been studying this issue for a long time and it seems that three factors affect autumn colors: leaf pigments, length of night and weather.

Three little pigments

A pigment is a natural substance that produces color in plants and animals. There are three pigments present in leaves that play a part in autumn color changes.

  1. Chlorophyll gives leaves their basic green color. It's necessary for photosynthesis, the chemical reaction that allows plants to use sunlight to make food.
  2. Carotenoids, which produce yellow, orange and brown colors in such things as corn, carrots and daffodils.
  3. Anthocyanins, which give vivid color to fruits such as strawberries, cherries and blueberries.

Like night and day

The color change is primarily driven by the calendar—that is the increasing length of night in late summer and early autumn. As daytime grows shorter, chlorophyll production slows down and eventually stops. The carotenoids and anthocyanins that are present in the leaves are then unmasked and show their colors.

Under the weather

Temperature and moisture can affect which colors appear and the brilliance of the display. For example, lots of warm, sunny days and cool nights in early autumn can bring about the most spectacular array. These conditions lead to the production of anthocyanin pigments, which create more red and purple leaves.

Moisture in the soil plays a part as well. Drought conditions in summer can delay the onset of the leaf changes as well as the mix of colors. Typically, it's a combination of weather conditions that has the biggest impact, making each autumn display different.

Branching out

Individual tree species tend to display certain colors, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Here are some well-known examples:

  • Oak—red or brown
  • Maple—scarlet, orange-red and yellow
  • Hickory—golden bronze
  • Dogwood—purplish red

Sadly, leaves from some species, such as elms, simply shrivel up and fall to the ground. They show little color other than a drab brown.

Like people, tree species often run on their own schedule. Sourwoods in southern forests become very colorful in late summer when other trees are still sporting green. Oaks on the other hand, are still showing off their colors long after other species have shed their leaves.

So there you go. The next time some child asks you why leaves change color, just come back to this article and you'll have the answer!

 

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