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The nice ones are all red and shiny

By David Curtis

If you are driving west along U.S. 23/74 and nearing exit 102, the Waynesville exit, you will see growing along side the road, a tree radiating a brilliant red. Chances are, you will also say something like, “Wow! That’s a nice one.”

Last week I was taking my daughter to Waynesville for dance or singing or whatever lessons she was having that day — hey, I’m just doing good to get her where she needs to be on time — and there at the Waynesville exit was this red maple in spectacular fall color. “Wow, that’s a nice one,” my daughter said nonchalantly.

My wife and I are professional plant people, which means that in someway or another we both earn a living based on our knowledge of plants. So to notice plants that grow along the side of the highway, and to identify them by their proper Latin name while driving by at 60 mph, is not an uncommon occurrence in our family. It also drives our daughters crazy, which in turn gives me great pleasure.

“Did you see that Gordonia lasianthus we just passed,” I commented to my wife on our trip to the beach last August. “Girls, if you would quit listening to your iPods for a second and look out the window, you see that pyramidal growing tree with the glossy green leaves and the white flowers, that’s a Gordonia, sometimes called a red bay, it’s one of the few native plants that’s a member of the tea family, well, there’s another, it’s Stewartia ovata, but it grows in the mountains and it’s ...”

“Mom! Tell Daddy to stop he’s scaring us! Shouldn’t he be keeping his eyes on the road? How much longer do we need to be in this car? Geez, why can’t we have normal parents?”

You shouldn’t be too alarmed that there are people like us loose out there in society; we are really quite harmless. However, we do excite quite easily, and loudly, when we see an outstanding plant specimen growing along the ditch bank.

Anyway, back to the tree. My daughter, who informed me that we were on our way to her “Off Broadway” class, was the one who first commented on the maple’s showy colors. (This is how plant geeks are born.) The question she asked me is why that particular red maple was so colorful and the red maples growing right next to it were a dull greenish yellow.

The answer to her question was genetics. Just like she is tall and brunette, the trees appearance is determined by the genetic traits it possesses, and like my daughter, this tree has good genetics supporting its appearance.

There are three pigments that are attributed to fall color. Carotin and xanthophylls contribute to yellow and orange coloration, and the third pigment —anthocyanin — give plants their red fall color. The red maple at exit 102 genetically contains more anthocyanin, giving it the potential to color up a more vivid red than other trees of the same species.

However, it’s not the amount of pigment alone that accounts for whether or not it will be a good color season, other factors beyond the tree’s genetics need to come into play. The first factor is light. Warm, bright, sunny days in the fall are important for the manufacture of sugars in the leaves.

The second factor that is needed is cool nights, in which the temperatures are below 45 degrees. With temperatures below 45 degrees, little to no sugars produced in the leaves are translocated to other parts of the tree. The sugars are essentially trapped in the leaves — which is a good thing because sugars are needed to help make the red anthocyanin.

When all these factors come together we — and our visitors — are treated with a nice fall color season. When the days are cloudy and nights are warm, sugars are translocated out of the leaves to the trunk and roots of the plant resulting in less than favorable fall color.

When trees like the maple at exit 102 have excellent color, or an outstanding shape, they are often vegetatively propagated, becoming a named cultivated variety. “Red Sunset” red maple is a named variety for its outstanding fall color, as is “October Glory,” a maple selected for its excellent late season color.

My daughter and I were not the only ones to notice the maple at exit 102. Last Saturday I was in a conversation with a person from Waynesville and she was talking about her daughter who drives to Asheville each day. She told me her daughter called her about this brilliantly colored tree at the Waynesville exit.

Wow! Now that’s a nice one.

(When he is not scouting the road sides for outstanding plant material, David Curtis teaches middle school in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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