Up Close for Colors Leave Your Car and Get into the Forests If You Want to Take in Nature's Fall Show

By Zeldes, Leah A. | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), October 7, 2005 | Go to article overview

Up Close for Colors Leave Your Car and Get into the Forests If You Want to Take in Nature's Fall Show


Zeldes, Leah A., Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Leah A. Zeldes Daily Herald Correspondent

Your fall color fix may be a little harder to come by this year.

Those of us accustomed to enjoying nature's annual autumnal show as we travel suburban streets may need to abandon our cars and actually walk into local forest preserves if we want to see much of nature's kaleidoscope.

The summer's drought, experts said, has stressed many trees to the point that they're likely to put on a poorer show than usual. Trees concentrated in cooler forests stand a better chance of turning colors.

We can expect the fall color change to be fast and early.

"It's the third driest season on record," said Richard D. Newhard, director of the Department of Resource Management for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. "Moisture, sunlight - these are all things that affect the color."

You may have to make to make a special trip, a little farther than usual, and choose your time, to see that burst of brightness this year.

For example, the bur oak, white oak and shagbark hickory leaves were already turning brown in late September at the Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington, said Conrad Drust, a naturalist at the center.

"We're extremely dry. Several of our wetlands are almost completely dry," he said.

But other forest preserves have fared better, he said, besides having tree types more likely to color in brilliant hues. Local naturalists point to wooded areas along the Des Plaines, DuPage and Fox rivers as holding some of the top trees and shrubs for rich autumn crimsons, bronzes and bright yellows.

Sue Holt, a naturalist with the River Trails Nature Center in Northbrook, advised leaf lookers to travel trails along the Des Plaines River, where there are sugar maples and basswoods, as well as cottonwoods.

"Those are the kinds of trees that typically surround a stream," she said.

Mid-October is normally the peak time for leaf change, which usually starts around the beginning of the month and lasts until early November, but some area trees were already coloring - or just turning brown - in mid- to late September. This year, said Ron Wolford, educator with the University of Illinois Extension Service, "the color may be less intense, more patchy. Some trees may just go from green to brown to dropping leaves."

Neighborhood plantings, street trees and other roadside vegetation, will have suffered most, said Ed Hedborn, plant records manager and fall-color expert for The Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

"Stressed plants change early," he said. "In a real dry season, a plant that normally takes 10 days to two weeks to change, can take only five days."

Hedborn recommends a trip to a forest preserve or the arboretum to see trees that are likely to be in the best shape to put on a color show.

"There you have the best conditions, in a natural community of plants," he said.

He pointed out that the Morton Arboretum holds not only native trees but also such plants as viburnums from China; maples from China, Japan and Europe; and oaks from Russia, which can extend the color show beyond the normal Midwestern period.

Even so, Hedborn said, "Color change will depend on the weather.

"The main trigger for color change is the decreasing daylight. After the fall equinox, the days get shorter." That causes trees to prepare for winter by stopping their production of chlorophyll, which is what gives leaves their green color.

"When the green goes out of the leaf, it uncovers carotenes, a yellow color that's there all year round," but masked by the green chlorophyll. That accounts for the yellows and bronzes of cottonwoods and hickory trees.

However, in some plants, there's a second kind of color produced in the fall when the weather conditions are right: short days, adequate moisture, warm and bright days with cool nights. …

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