WCU professor emeritus shares annual fall color forecast for mountains

Press release from Western Carolina University:

CULLOWHEE – Fall, the time of year when Western Carolina University’s campus is bustling with activity, classes, football and of course, the brilliant color of autumn leaves.

The fall colors across Western North Carolina are a seasonal sensation that draw thousands of visitors and locals alike to the mountains each year.

Beverly Collins, professor emeritus at WCU, has been the resident leaf expert for WCU and has again offered her prediction for the 2023 leaf season.

“Because it has been dry, we might see some leaves turning earlier, which sounds incongruous, but it’s because the dryness also brings on stress and it’s basically end of season stress that causes the leaves to change color,” Collins said. “The second factor is how cold it gets at night. The thing that brings on color really quickly is having it get cold and down into the lower 40s with bright sunny days.”

Collins combines her knowledge of forest ecology with observations of weather trends to assess the leaf color season.

“The main factor is that the days are getting shorter,” Collins said. “With it getting darker earlier in the fall, chlorophyll production slows down and then stops and eventually all the chlorophyll is destroyed. They are gradually starting to change even now, so that makes it easy to say our leaf season will be from the beginning of October until the end just because of the days shortening.”

Collins says leaf lookers will have from the end of September through early November to see this year’s color change.

Collins recommends visiting the higher elevations first where the weather is cooler, and along streams and roads where there are early-changing trees like walnuts, black gum and dogwood.

From there, the leaves brown down the mountains.

“By the last week of October, it is down in Sylva and the lower areas and it lasts until November as you get further south,” she said.

Unfortunately for this year, Collins predicts the colors will lack the intensity they had last year, primarily because they won’t be changing color at the same time.

“It pains me to say this, but I think that last year was an anomaly in our colors, which were so bright, because we had perfect conditions,” Collins said. “The way the weather is going and I can’t predict with certainty because I can’t predict when that cold snap is going to happen, but I think that the colors will not be as bright this year as last year because they won’t be as synchronous.”

To keep track of fall foliage, smokymountains.com/fall-foliage-map/ provides a map of the U.S. and when colors are expected to peak in North Carolina.

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