Collins, a professor of biology, combines her knowledge of forest ecology with weather trend observations to assess the potential for a strong leaf color season.
From spring to mid-summer the area saw unusually warm and wet conditions, but precipitation returned closer to normal in late July. The long-term forecast through October is for average precipitation and warmer-than-normal temperatures — if that holds true, the mountain region should see typically bright colors this year.
Peak color is determined by changing sunrise/sunset times as well as weather conditions, with cooler nights resulting in less chlorophyll production and therefore less green in the leaves. If the long-term forecast for warmer weather holds and those cooler nights are delayed, peak color could hold off to the last weekend of October near WCU and the region’s many valley towns in the 2,000-foot elevation range. Peak color will happen sooner at the higher elevations, where the cool nights come earlier, though the very highest peaks tend to be covered with fir and spruce trees that stay dark green all year.
“Moving down in elevation, maple, cherry and birch trees of the northern hardwood forests often turn early, with predominately reds and yellows,” Collins said. “The mixed oak-hardwood forests often turn over a more prolonged time, with the reds, oranges and yellows of maples, birches and tulip-poplar appearing earlier and the more muted yellows and reds of oaks appearing later. Sycamores, maples, walnut and birches along streams tend to turn yellow, then brown, and the leaves fall early.”
A wildcard in nature’s leaf color mix is the rogue hurricane remnants or big storms that could bring heavy rain and strong winds to the mountains and knock the leaves off the trees ahead of schedule — leaf peepers should cross their fingers and hope that doesn’t happen.