HIGH COUNTRY — Peak week for fall colors is on the horizon for the High Country.
As tourists and residents alike wait for the bright fall colors to arrive in the mountains, Appalachian State University professor and renowned fall foliage tracker Howard Neufeld predicts that mid-October will be the best time to view the colors.
“Mid-October, from the 10th to the 20th, would be (peak colors) for 3,000 to 4,000 feet in elevation,” Neufeld said, the elevation at which most of the High Country sits.
He said that when creating a map projecting the peaks for fall foliage, he utilizes both elevation and temperature as indicators for when leaves are going to start turning.
The southeast has the longest fall color season out of anywhere in the country making it the best place to look for fall foliage, Neufeld said. The leaves start changing their fall colors starting from the highest elevations and move downward throughout the season, reaching areas like the coast much later.
Even if leaf-peepers miss the peak of color in the High Country, he said they can still go to overlooks and look down 500 to 1,000 or more feet and see foliage changing colors beneath them. Overall, Neufeld said that travelers can see beautiful colors for an entire month of the peak season and can spread out their visits.
The best, brightest colors a visitor can see are in the morning hours, Neufeld said.
According to Neufeld, there are reasons why some trees’ leaves change to yellow or orange while others change to red. The ones that turn yellow, and even orange, are pretty consistent every year and change to these colors due to pigments.
The orange leaves, Neufeld said, turn orange because of the pigment carotene – like what makes carrots orange – while the yellow leaves have xanthophyll. These pigments are always in the leaf all summer, but when the chlorophyll — which turns leaves green — breaks down the yellow and orange colors suddenly pop out.
Red, however, is much more exciting. Neufeld said scientists are less sure about why leaves turn red. The pigment is called anthocyanin and, unlike the yellow and orange pigments trees, create the red pigment during the color changing season. Neufeld said there are a couple different theories about why leaves turn red.
One theory, Neufeld said, is that the red acts like a sunscreen to protect leaves from the damaging conditions of high light and cold weather. While the tree cannot change the cold, Neufeld said the red coloration may protect the leaf from excess light and help the leaf stay intact longer while the tree draws out nutrients before the leaf falls off and dies. Trees with yellow and orange leaves also draw nutrients out of leaves before dropping them, so Nuefeld said researchers are not sure why trees are creating the red pigment.
A competing theory is that the red pigment may act as a warning signal in an effort to deter any insects or other creatures that may try to eat the leaf or lay eggs on it.
Some trees are unique and have leaves which turn multiple colors. Nuefeld said the sassafras and sweetgum trees, both of which can be seen in the High Country, can turn multiple colors at the same time.
“When we were getting into the low 50s and high 40s in the mornings, and it was very sunny in the afternoon, those are the perfect conditions to elicit good colors,” Neufeld said.
If the weather continues like it has, he said the High Country is in good shape for a beautiful fall foliage season.
Neufeld works alongside students and other researchers on a variety of projects, but specifically highlighted his work with two Western Carolina professors, Kathy Matthews and Jim Costa, who is also the director of the Highlands Biological Station. Together, they do a weekly update of the leaf changes at several locations throughout western North Carolina.
Using this tool, Neufeld said those looking to see fall colors can best plan their trips and outings to enjoy the outdoors and appreciate our natural environment.
To visit Neufeld, Matthews and Costa’s leaf updates, visit www.ourstate.com/our-favorite-north-carolina-fall-mountain-views/.
To find Neufeld’s weekly fall color reports with Appalachian State University, visit https://biology.appstate.edu/fall-colors.