I’ve always wanted to see the colors change in the Smoky Mountains. It’s a spectacular and unique display. Great bursts of warm color spring forth from the mountains and cascade down the slopes like a long, tantilizing sunset. It’s a sensuous mix of yellows, orange and reds that develop together over several weeks, starting in mid-Sept at the highest elevations (~6,000 feet) and moving down the mountain slopes until they “peak” in ~3rd week of October and then fade. The whole thing is a color theatre in motion, and what a play it is!
The most interesting thing is that the leaves hide these colors all year. The strong, warm orange and yellow colors are cartenoids which are usually hidden most of the year by green chlorophyll. As the days shorten and colder nights set-in, the green pigments deteriorate and allow the other colors to shine. The darker reds and purples come from anthocyanins produced when sugar breakdown changes with the season.
The reason it’s so spectacular particularly in the Appalachians is because they harbor over 100 different native species of trees, many of which are deciduous. So, trees such as the Birch, Dogwood, Poplar and Sourwood change first followed by Beech, Hickory, Oak and the Sweet Gum several weeks later.
It’s a chemical and biological colorscope which provides a feast for the eyes. So famous and so short is this display that it’s wildly popular with tourists and monitored by video cams, avid nauralists and even a Forest Service color “hotline”.
Of course we don’t need any of those things. Lucky as we are to be here, we can walk the changes as nature graces to give them to us. And that’s a gift we’ll take anyday.