More than leaf-deep

Get ready, you sensory gluttons. Western North Carolina’s annual riot of colors traditionally reaches its peak around the second or third week in October, providing an unparalleled color fix for those who revel in gaudy visual displays.

And to make sure you’re fully prepared to gape at leaf pigment, we’ve compiled a few fall-color facts that are just right for impressing friends and relations.

Let’s start with the basics. In case you (like me) have forgotten your junior-high science lessons: Leaves change color in the fall because they’re simply tired of wearing their green summer outfits. Seriously, though, it’s because the group of pigments called chlorophylls have packed up and left. During the growing season, the green chlorophylls (which convert the sun’s energy into simple sugars known scientifically as “tree food”) mask the other pigments in the leaves, according to a snazzy brochure (“Autumn Colors”) published by the U.S. Forest Service.

But as fall approaches, the supply of chlorophylls declines, allowing pigments called carotenoids — which yield yellow, brown and orange colors — to be revealed in all their autumnal glory. Reds and purples, however, come from anthocyanins, another group of pigments that develop in late summer in the sap of leaf cells. And xanthophylls offer up clarifying yellow.

Another nugget: Leaves fall because a layer of cork cells grows across the leaf’s stalk, eventually causing the unfortunate leaf’s demise, according to Tree, by David Burnie (Knopf, 1988).

Now, for the question we’ve all been harboring: How vivid will the colors be this year?

“[It’s] going to be an average year for us, because there’s been adequate rain,” predicts biology professor and fall-color expert J. Dan Pittillo of Western Carolina University.

A nice shot of drought (like what we had last year) results in better color, although it’s not necessarily good for the trees, notes Pittillo. A couple of other factors also dampen tree splendor: poor soil, leaf fungi and a frost or freeze.

Of course the chances are still good that, somewhere in the mountains — maybe in a little stand of trees near you — you’ll spot some truly spectacular color.

In the higher elevations, the trees have already started to kick out the chlorophyll. From there, the color dribbles south, washing down slopes in mid-October and early November, Pittillo notes. First up in the color pageant are yellow birches, red sourwoods, red-to-yellow maples, yellow pin cherries, and yellow poplars. Those are followed by yellow-to-red oaks and sweet gums, yellow hickories and yellow-to-brown beeches.

Although individual trees may be hard to distinguish when you’re whizzing along the Blue Ridge Parkway at 45 mph (especially if you’re in the driver’s seat), these stately maples offer much of fall’s color punch with their red, yellow and copper-colored leaves.

Interestingly, the Great Smokies accommodate unique twists on a couple of maple species. For example, it’s only around here that the striped maple (named for its striped twig and bark) reaches its full stature of 30 or 40 feet, with a trunk as much as 10 inches thick, according to the engaging A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, by Donald Culross Peattie (Houghton Mifflin, 1991).

The red maple (also known as scarlet or swamp maple) can be found from Newfoundland to Florida and as far west as east Texas. So, when you see a flaming-red tree, chances are good you’ll be correct in pronouncing it a red maple (unless, of course, it’s a sourwood, red oak or dogwood). If you’re unsure, just step on the gas before anyone gets wise. Here’s a more reliable factoid to casually insert in conversation: Pioneers made ink, as well as cinnamon-brown and black dye, from a red-maple bark extract. That’s according to the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Eastern Region (Knopf, 1996).

Other stars in the fall-color landscape include the aforementioned riotous red sourwood (related to rhododendrons), mountain laurel and huckleberries, notes Charlotte Hilton Green in Trees of the South (University of North Carolina Press, 1955), going on to describe the sourwood in fall as a “pillar of flame.”

The equally showy mountain ash — with its yellow fronds and bright-red berries — is a favorite of grouse, grosbeaks and cedar waxwings; it’s also known as a rowan tree. (Roan Mountain was, by one account, named for the rowan trees along its peak, declares the Audubon field guide.)

Folks have been waxing poetic about the properties of the yellow- or orange-leafed sassafras at least since 1574, when Nicholas Monardes of Seville wrote about the tree’s “great excellencies,” notes Peattie. Explorers and colonists thought the root bark was a cure-all for disease; although that myth has been dispelled, sassafras root and root bark is still used to perfume soap and make tea. Peattie offers the appetizing observation that hot and thirsty botanists have been known to chew sassafras leaves to produce a “mucilaginous slime” in their mouths when out on dusty woodland rambles.

The list goes on. All the books mentioned above are available through the Asheville-Buncombe Library System — and they all offer a slightly different look at tree behavior, from Peattie’s poetics to the scientifically detailed Audubon guide.

Now, a few suggestions about where to gawk:

• If you need a quick dose of color close to town, try Buzzard Rock, an outcropping north of Asheville not far from where the unpaved Elk Mountain Scenic Highway meets Ox Creek Road. The rock overlooks the picturesque Beaverdam Valley.

• Feel like a hike? Craggy Pinnacle rates high with Taylor Barnhill (of the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, a group dedicated to improving the management of our national forests). From Asheville, take the Parkway north past Craggy Gardens and the Visitors Center. Go through a tunnel and park at the overlook on the left, where you can take a trail to the top. “You’re looking at the world,” Barnhill exalts. “It’s 360 degrees.”

• If you’ve got a couple of hours to kill, take a leisurely drive through the Big Sandy Mush community for valley views of autumn leaves set off by red barns, white farmhouses and great big mountains. From Patton Avenue in Asheville, take New Leicester Highway into the commercial part of Leicester. Make a left onto North Turkey Creek Road; when the road forks, go straight onto Early’s Mountain Road. At the bottom of the hill, turn right at the white church onto Sandy Mush Creek Road — but watch out for ostriches along the way (no kidding).

This little loop takes you back onto Leicester Highway. Make a right, then a quick left onto Sandy Mush Road, which takes you into Madison County. Hang a right at the stop sign (still on Sandy Mush Road), then a left at the next stop sign, onto Meadows Town Road. Mysteriously, this road becomes Bailey’s Branch Road, which eventually eases you into Marshall (and a view of the Madison County Courthouse) from across the river.

And if weeks of brilliant (or even average, if WCU’s Pittillo proves right) foliage hasn’t satisfied your hunger, don’t forget that even after the leaves have dropped in Asheville, you can still head south to get your fix. Go ahead and overindulge: Trek on down to Chimney Rock and Lake Lure, and enjoy fall all over again.

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