Why Some Trees and Forests Change Colors in the Fall

why some trees and forests change colors in the fall

If you have ever seen the brilliant Colorado Aspens or the fantastic foliage of New England forests, you may be wondering where all the brilliant colors and vivid hues come from. You may be interested to know those spectacular shades are actually there all the time and waiting to spring forth when the time is right.

All trees and plants, except mushrooms and fungal types, will sport leaves in a vibrant green during summer and spring indicating the chemical processes occurring within. Chlorophyll is a green colored chemical that allows plants and trees to collect energy from the sun and transform it to plant food through the process of photosynthesis. When leaves are green you know this process is in full swing.

Then, as the summer ends and cooler days begin, a transformation takes place in the way energy is being produced. Some types of trees and forests, called “deciduous”, react to the changing of the seasons by adjusting their processes for improved energy efficiency. To understand why trees can portray such a marvelous display of tones and colors, we must first understand how trees prepare for the harsh circumstances of winter.

wintery forest tree tops

How Forests Prepare for the Coming of Winter

Trees have adapted perfectly to their environments and have even evolved to adapt their environments to an impressive extent. When it comes to energy production and surviving the winter, there are two herbal schools of thought on the best approach.

Deciduous Trees

When the temperatures drop and the energy from solar rays is greatly diminished, all plant life in the deciduous forest must prepare for the coming of winter. Keeping a full crown of foliage requires a lot of water and solar energy to stay active and healthy.  Deciduous trees think it best to curtail photosynthesis till the spring. This is accomplished through a special process that includes sealing the access points where the leaves meet the tree causing the leaf to dramatically reveal its true colors before being carried away by the wind.  

Evergreens

Evergreens function very differently from their deciduous cousins. As you may have guessed from the name, evergreens don’t change color or periodically shed all their leaves each year. This doesn’t mean that evergreens never shed their leaves, but it is not done in one big colorful display as seen with many exciting deciduous forests.

Because they have leaves designed for long-term use some evergreens choose to live in warm temperate locations where they can expect a fairly steady climate year in year out. Most tropical jungles are considered evergreens. Other temperate evergreens include eucalyptus, cycads and hemlock, the deviations between evergreens is extensive.  

Conifers are the most iconic evergreens as they can withstand the harshest climates at high altitudes or near the frozen tundra. This is accomplished through specially designed leaves or pine needles, natural coatings and the capacity to continue operating photosynthesis with virtually no water, a feat that would kill any other tree.1

sun peeking through forest trees

Why Trees and Forests Become Colorful in the Winter

As mentioned, the colors we are about to see in the trees this year are already present in the leaves themselves and only being masked by other more imposing pigments. During the summer and spring, chlorophyll is the predominant pigment and shows that the plant or tree is healthy and storing energy.

When the temperature begins to drop toward the end of summer, less chlorophyll is present in the leaves and they begin changing color. Most often the color on the leaves has been completely changed before the leaf has detached itself from the branch, showing that the process of curtailing photosynthesis is complex and efficient.

Sugars, chlorophyll, and the substances used for this conversion must be gathered and returned to the tree’s trunk. At the same time, the construction of a blockade at the base of each leaf is signaled. The abscission layer stops the passing of nutrients, sugar, and water between the mainline of the tree’s branches and trunk and the individual leaves. Chlorophyll, the green pigment, is one of the first chemicals to go and as it does the color begins to change.

This is when your green forest will become suddenly painted for the seasons and produce shades of bright yellow, pumpkin orange, deep crimson, blood red and even a variety of purples and pastel hues. The spectacle found in some forests attracts foliage aficionados and forest therapy enthusiasts from across the globe to bask in the bright hues and enchanted feel of the fall forest.2

fall trees and sun

But, Why the Difference in Colors?  

One of the most disappointing things that can happen to a traveler in search of fiery foliage and brightly-colored fall scenery, is arriving at a forest famous for fall colors and seeing nothing but dull browns and greens, like three-day-old spinach.

The reason fall foliage is so unique is that the color of the leaf depends on what is left behind when the abscission layer is constructed. Pigments exist in leaves for a large number of reasons. Anthocyanins cause leaves to turn a deep red and may help protect leaves from sunlight. If the abscission layer goes up at just the right time, the chemical exchange will be perfect and the pigments will fully develop before the blockade is complete and the leaf is released to the forest floor.

Here is a guide to some of the common pigments to look for in your favorite fall colors.

RED (anthocyanin): Oak, Maple, Tupelo, Sumac, Sourwood, Sassafras, Sweet Gum

Oranges and Yellows (carotene): Oak, Maple Aspen, Dogwood, Black Gum, Sourwood.

To achieve the greatest color spectacle in all its tremendous variation and brilliance, the pigments within the leaf must properly mature, and the chlorophyll be removed quickly and before the abscission layer is constructed.

It is ideal if the fall days are filled with golden sunlight that will provide all the energy needed for the changes being made. Warm sunlight can quickly remove the chlorophyll pigment and this allows for a better color development.

It is also good if the nights are cool, but not too cold that it will affect the delicate color transformation taking place within the leaves. If the nights are too warm, the pigments will begin to leave the foliage as well, and this can turn the display a typical brown.

If the summer and spring have been unfavorable to the life of the tree with too much or too little moisture, nutrients, and sunlight, the fall festival of colors may be canceled. Years of poor supply can cause the tree to initiate the creation of abscission layers early, and this can diminish the intensity of the colors.

The amounts and types of chemicals that exist in the soil, such as acidity levels, magnesium, phosphorus, etc., can play a role in the type of colors the tree produces. Finally, many trees inherit the colors they produce from their ancestry, just like a person may have the same visual characteristics as their parents.

valley of fall trees

Final Thoughts

Taking the time to amble through the spectacular fall colors benefits the mind and body on both a subconscious and cellular level. Forest therapy, or Forest Bathing, is nothing more than fully immersing oneself in the therapeutic setting of the forest to address and optimize many aspects of life and good health.  

The beautiful sights, sounds, and smells of the deep wood are the perfect way to counterbalance the many unhealthy aspects of modern life and have a lengthy list of scientifically-studied benefits. At MONQ, we know that even a moment’s immersion in the therapeutic aroma of the deep forest can soothe the mind and positively affect the body

This is why we have taken all the sensory delights and natural essences of the deep woods and placed them in the Forest personal diffuser that can be used anytime anyplace. Read more about it here.3

Photo credits: everst/shutterstock.com, irin-k/shutterstock.com, ambrozinio/shutterstock.com, OndrejProsicky/shutterstock.com


Savannah

By Savannah Wilson

Savannah is an aromatherapy enthusiast who takes pride in knowing everything about essential oils, from ylang ylang to chamomile. When taking a break from learning more about essential oils, Savannah likes to spend her time reading books or working out.

Favorite MONQ blend: Private: Old Sexy

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The above information relates to studies of specific individual essential oil ingredients, some of which are used in the essential oil blends for various MONQ diffusers. Please note, however, that while individual ingredients may have been shown to exhibit certain independent effects when used alone, the specific blends of ingredients contained in MONQ diffusers have not been tested. No specific claims are being made that use of any MONQ diffusers will lead to any of the effects discussed above.  Additionally, please note that MONQ diffusers have not been reviewed or approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. MONQ diffusers are not intended to be used in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, prevention, or treatment of any disease or medical condition. If you have a health condition or concern, please consult a physician or your alternative health care provider prior to using MONQ diffusers. MONQ blends should not be inhaled into the lungs.

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