Tim Cordell is an interpretive naturalist at Potato Creek State Park. He has worked for DNR since 1978 at Potato Creek, McCormick’s Creek and Spring Mill State Parks. Tim plays an active role in the park’s resource management as well as running the nature center and park programming.
Is it peak color yet? This is a question that we all ask every fall. It’s also one that is impossible to truly answer. The changing colors of the leaves are an ongoing parade from the earliest tinges of yellows through the brilliant oranges and deep reds and on to the leathery browns that may cling to some trees throughout the winter. I usually notice the first tulip tree with a yellow leaf here and there in August. Then a few of the sassafras and sugar maples will show color on just the tips of the branches where they get the most sun through September.
These partial displays normally start out with yellows and oranges and develop into bright reds. One tree out in the open may explode into a full brilliant display of color while others nearby in a woodlot may still be entirely green on the same day. This is my favorite part of the constantly changing fall color season; a few very bright colors against the sea of green. It symbolizes the change to come and makes me anticipate the true coming of fall.
By the time early October rolls around you will notice the fall colors about everywhere you look, although there is still a lot of green present.
When mid-October arrives there are more yellows, oranges and reds than green. I suppose this is what most people would consider “peak color”. But with almost all of the trees having changed, you no longer see the dramatic contrast of those first brilliant orange and red branches against the rich greens of summer. Fall is here and the anticipation of what may be has been replaced with what is. This is when the weather really plays its role. Sunny warm days and crisp cool nights will heighten the color. Dreary rainy days and warm nights will dampen it. These weather variables impact color, with the sugars and pigments being produced during the sunny days and trapped in the leaves during the cool nights yielding more dramatic colors. The dreary weather dosen’t do this and the resulting colors are less vibrant. After the point where most of the leaves have changed colors, the next phase is their falling off. If the weather remains fairly calm, the leaves can persist a little longer. If we have strong winds or heavy rains, they can fall off the tree very quickly.
So when is the peak color? For me, the peak contrast has passed and the height of the amount of changed color is now, in mid October.
How long will it last? That depends on the weather in the coming days/weeks: longer if calm, shorter if blustery. Now is the time to get out and enjoy the fabulous fall season. Make plans today to get out to your favorite park or natural area or go for a drive in the country to make your own decision on when the peak fall color is.