Fall color coming to northwest N.C.

No effect from wet summer expected
Oct. 10, 2013 @ 07:29 AM

The next two weekends will be the best time to see fall color in the Boone and Blowing Rock area, a plant expert at Appalachian State University said.

"It's in pretty high gear right at over 4,000 feet elevation," said Howie Neufeld, professor of plant eco-physiology at Appalachian State University. "It will continue to increase."

Trees in Boone, which is around 3,000 feet elevation, should peak next, followed by those in the 2,000 feet zone, then the foothills of Caldwell County.

"The sourwood trees are in full color, and the maples will be coming into their own afterward," Neufeld adds. "Then, the birches and chestnuts will begin to turn. The last trees to turn colors are the oaks."

The colors will peak in the far western mountains of the state, toward Cullowhee, a little later in the month than in the Boone area, said Robert Bardon, a forestry and environmental resources professor at North Carolina State University.

"The nice thing about our state is that we have a wider window for fall colors because of our topography," Bardon said. "The earliest color displays will be at high elevation sites like Mount Mitchell and Grandfather Mountain."

But any travelers going to the Blue Ridge Parkway to see the leaves needs to plan ahead. The shutdown of the U.S. government means that the visitor facilities along the parkway -- and their restrooms -- are closed.

The early part of summer, especially July, saw record amounts of rain, and some feared that would have a damaging effect on fall leaf color if it kept up because excessive rainfall can leach nutrients out of soil and leave plant roots waterlogged and unable to get air.

But the weather during the weeks immediately before fall is the key to a colorful season, and during the past month the weather has been relatively dry, Newufeld said.

"So, as it gets colder and the days get shorter, that's when we need the bright sunshine happening," said Kathy Mathews, associate professor of biology at Western Carolina University. "The rains this summer might not have that much effect."

As days start to get shorter, the chlorophyll in leaves -- it is the substance that converts sunlight to energy for the tree, but it also is the green pigment in leaves -- starts to degrade, revealing the yellow and orange colors beneath. Cool temperatures make the colors more vivid.

"Every day you go out, it's getting prettier," Neufeld said.