Hot summer, vivid fall

Staff WriterNovember 20, 2010 

Look up and collect your payoff for enduring that record-torching summer heat.

The searing summer has stretched into a warm, dry fall and ignited a startling burst of reds, golds and yellows among the Triangle's hardwoods.

"This has been one of the most brilliant color years that I can remember," said John King, associate professor of forestry and environmental resources at N.C. State University. "I think the duration is probably actually longer, too."

Dry, sunny days are key. The low humidity has been letting through generous light to illuminate the vivid display, particularly in early morning and late afternoon. And day after day of clear skies mean few fall storms to knock the leaves down, so they're remaining on display longer, King said.

Also, the shortage of water has meant trees couldn't grow much this year, he said. That forced the leaves to use some of the power of their photosynthesis to create compounds that act as pigments, rather than to create fuel for growth.

The Triangle may be having a prettier season than areas better known for fall foliage.

Two experts who feed information about fall leaves in the mountains and Piedmont to a state tourism website have visited the Triangle this fall, and both said the leaves here were more colorful than those farther west.

Howard Neufeld, an Appalachian State University biology professor and plant expert who writes a blog on fall leaf color, happened to visit the Chapel Hill area last weekend and said conditions were prettier than in the mountains, which have an earlier season.

In the west, he said, some species that normally would have had brilliant yellow leaves started to turn lemony but then almost immediately went brown. Also, the reds and purples weren't particularly strong.

It's believed that a wet spring and warm, sunny fall days with cool but above-freezing nights are key ingredients for spectacular colors. But the timing of rainfall, droughts and hot spells have effects that can't always be predicted precisely.

Clearly, though, there was something about the timing of "leaf season" that worked out well for the Triangle, Neufeld said.

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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