It’s here. Foliage season. While we could fill this post with prose to match the stunning scenery we absorb this time of year, we thought we’d bring in an expert to talk about the season and the science behind the bursts of color.
Michael Snyder is the Commissioner of Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation for the State of Vermont. Much like Cabot agrees to disagree with Wisconsin on where the best cheese comes from, Commissioner Snyder says Vermont is the top spot for foliage – though admits New England and New York may not be THAT far behind.
What makes the Northeast and specifically Vermont such a prime place for fall foliage?
It can be summarized in four words: variety, vibrancy, vantage points.
Vermont is one of the most heavily-forested states in the country, with an unmatched extent and diversity of forest and species mixes including the highest proportion of maples, known to be the real show-stealers of autumn.
The rich, sweet soils of our hills and valleys conspire with classic Northeast fall weather to produce superior vibrancy of color development. And our mixed topography and classic landscape of family forests, farms, village centers, parks, and waterways offer the greatest range of viewing opportunities for enjoying the annual display.
It seems like every year is different when it comes to foliage, whether timing or vibrancy, what are some factors in making each year unique? Feel free to get scientific with it 😉
Fall colors are a byproduct of the trees preparing for winter. And that process – like all tree processes – is indeed linked very closely with their environment and especially weather. As trees gear up to shed their leaves, a series of physiological changes occur, each with a corresponding role in leaf color change.
Toward the end of summer, photosynthesis slows as days get shorter and nights get longer and cooler. Chlorophyll production, which causes them to be green, in the leaf ceases and the greens fade. This unmasks the yellow and orange hue that are produced by another pigment type called carotenoids. This pigment was there all along but the colors it makes were shrouded under the green sheen of chlorophyll. Another basic last step as trees ready themselves for winter is the creation of a third kind of pigment – the anthocyanins – that produce the brilliant red colors. The reds are particularly stimulated by cool air in September and early October and they are thought to play an important protective, “sunscreen-like” effect for leaves during this tricky transitional time for trees.
We know a great deal about the science of fall foliage and much of what is known was elucidated by forest scientists here in Vermont. That said, it is also important to remember – and I think it’s one of many good things about fall foliage – that we don’t know everything and a fair amount of mystery — heck, I’ll say it — even magic remains. How cool that this annual rite of color keeps some of its secrets and surprises safe from science.
The news talks about “peak season” a lot, is there an official moment you declare foliage is at PEAK?
The truth is, peak is in the eye of the beholder and there are multiple peaks throughout the season – peak is earlier in the north and peak occurs later in the south. Peak is where you find it. Everyone’s got a different sensibility and aesthetic and Vermont’s got something for everyone.
Any snacking recommendations for when people are driving the states roads looking at foliage? (Cabot answer bait.)
Ha. Let’s go with…. cheese and apples!
Any warnings or things to look out for when leaf peeping?
Seriously, yes. Please take your driving responsibilities seriously and be safe on the roads. Sure, pull over to take in the view or take some photos, but do be sure to get safely off the road and allow others to continue.
The colors on some of these hillsides are truly so amazing that it really is possible – even likely – to take rubbernecking to a whole new level. Glorious as it is, though, it truly is not worth veering into oncoming traffic or off the road into those beautiful woods unplanned.
Any final thoughts?
Vermont’s fall foliage display is – among other wonderful and special things — an annual reminder of how lucky we are to live in a place so strongly benefiting from the long-term stewardship of this landscape by generations of family farm and forest owners and the many people who work carefully with the land – especially the landowners, foresters, and loggers who keep our forests… forests. It is worth remembering that all this color comes from our culture of close, careful connections to the land.