Fall’s flair a little slow arriving this year
Published 9:19 am Monday, October 12, 2015
Fall in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina not only brings pumpkins and apples, but a showcase of autumn color.
Spots in the area, especially in the higher elevations, are already bursting into a canvas of reds, oranges and yellows.
Howard Neufeld, professor of plant ecophysiology at Appalachian State University, says trees in the High Country of North Carolina and Northeast Tennessee should be on track for a lovely display — however, a little later than usual.
The changing of the leaves is dependent on a number of factors, including temperature and the amount of rain, but the most important factor is light. As the days get shorter, it triggers chemical changes in the trees that ultimately cause the leaves to change colors. Fall foliage loses its chlorophyll and green tint and morphs into a kaleidoscope of yellows, reds and oranges.
The more clear sunny days and cool nights we see, the more vibrant the colors will be and the longer they will last.
Traditionally, fall color in Northeast Tennessee reaches full peak in mid to late October. However, the change seems to be just a little slower this year. This week, some areas around Watauga Lake only have some slight difference from the summer green foliage.
Terry McDonald of the Watauga District of the Cherokee National Forest said there is only a small sliver of moderate color across Northeast Tennessee and along the North Carolina border.
Why does the color seem to be slower this year?
“You need the sunny, dry days to see the color really pop, which we have seen except for the rains last week,” said McDonald, “but you also need cool, dry nights. I think this is where we have fallen short.”
So far October is much warmer than normal. “We had some cool nighttime temperatures in mid-September when the temperature dropped into the 40s, but overall, the average low has been above average,” McDonald said.
“We will eventually see some cooler air move in over the next few weeks and we will see the fall color we are used to, but we may have to wait just a little longer this year,” said McDonald.
In North Carolina, fall colors on Mount Mitchell and other ridges in the area tend to peak around late September. Boone peaks reliably in mid-October, Asheville a week later, and so on until you reach the Piedmont and Raleigh in November. The same with the mountains in East Tennessee. Start with the Roan, Holston and Iron Mountains, and every week move farther down into the valley until you get to Elizabethton.
And though we’ll see those bright yellow, reds and oranges, Neufeld reminds us that fall has other colors, too. Deciduous magnolia leaves turn a chocolate brown that makes a nice partner to the pale brown of corn sheaves and haybales. Color also varies with a lot more than elevation.
“For one thing, whereas New England features overwhelmingly beeches, birches and maples, making for large blotches of single colors, eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina have an enormous variety of trees — the Smokies, in fact, peppered with microclimates, hosts some 120 species of trees, the greatest variety in the United States. That variety gives the Southern Appalachians a broader spectrum — a patchwork quilt of mountainside color,” Neufeld said.
Although the fall color is slow in coming this year, some autumn hues are beginning to pop at the higher elevations. Within a short drive from Elizabethton, you’ll find pockets of fall color starting to cover the landscape.
Oaks, red maples, black cherries and birches are all starting to progress nicely.
Along the roadside and in the fields, you’ll discover fall color doesn’t just appear in the trees. A variety of fall wildflowers are in bloom. Look for goldenrod, jewelweed, white snakeroot, black-eyed Susans and evening primrose. You may also spot the red berries of hawthorn and mountain ash trees.
“If we should get some cooler nights, and say a frost, the color should come fast,” said McDonald.
The trees to look for right now include flowering dogwoods, red and sugar maples, birches and sourwoods (all turning orange to deep red). “Tulip poplars are just beginning to show some yellow color and a few oaks are starting to redden up,” he said.
Some scenic viewing routes suggested by McDonald include St. Route 143 through Roan Mountain State Park to Carvers Gap; up Roaring Creek Road to Ripshin Mountain and back to Tiger Creek; Highway 321 around Watauga Lake; and Highway 91 up Stoney Creek and across Cross Mountain to Shady Valley.
And, it should be an ideal time to take a bike ride on the Tweetsie Trail from Elizabethton to Johnson City and back.