Prognosis dull for fall leaf color

Leaf peepers wanting an eyeful of Virginia’s autumnal color may now call the Shenandoah National Park’s fall foliage hot line for updates on the seasonal display.

The park’s peak color should come between the second and third week of October, spokeswoman Karen Beck-Herzog said. Those planning to motor along the park’s 105-mile-long Skyline Drive to see the changing leaves should come earlier in the expected peak period, she said.

The fall hues hit the higher altitudes first and gradually move down to lower elevations.

“It’s great, where I live, I look up at one of the mountains of the park. I literally watch as the colors swarm at the top and then start to creep down the mountain,” she said.

But those hoping for dazzling colors this fall may be disappointed. Russ MacFarlane, the forest silviculturalist for the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, expects little leaf color other than brown this season. He said trees, especially poplars and dogwoods, are dropping their leaves early because of the drought.

Maples may offer the one bright spot for those taking the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Waynesboro through the Washington forest, he said.

“Drive the parkway and get up as high as you can” in elevation to see as much color as possible, he said. “I really don’t expect it to be a spectacular year at all.”

The fall shades take over as the days get shorter. Plants that use the leaf-greening chemical chlorophyll to manufacture food begin to shut down for the winter by withdrawing chlorophyll from their leaves.

That makes visible the yellow pigments that were present in the leaves. In some trees, such as maples, sugar trapped in the leaves by nighttime’s cool temperatures reacts with sunlight to produce brilliant reds, oranges and purples.

“It’s still a little early to tell exactly how the leaves are going to look,” Beck-Herzog said. “Every year is different. Mother Nature paints a different show, which is what makes Skyline Drive and the valleys look so spectacular.”

Warm, bright days combined with cool, crisp nights could produce more brilliant colors, said botanist E.K. Rose, a volunteer at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Henrico County.

The fall foliage display could be a little early this year by a few days, said Virginia Tech forestry professor John R. Seiler. He said the peak for the Blacksburg area would come in the third or fourth week of October and in the final week for central Virginia.

But predictions are just that, he said — not hard-and-fast rules.

A.J. Hostetler is a staff writer at Media General’s Richmond Times-Dispatch.