published Monday, October 14th, 2013

Leaf-peeping time: Wet summer, dry fall should make for spectacular colors this year

A carpet of fall leaves surround a tree in Chickamauga National Military Park.
A carpet of fall leaves surround a tree in Chickamauga National Military Park.
Photo by Robin Rudd.

No need for rose-colored glasses to get a bright view of fall in the next few weeks. Mother Nature has it under control.

Thanks to a wet summer and a relatively dry fall -- thus far -- the area's fall foliage is expected to be spectacular, says Tom Stebbins, University of Tennessee Extension Agent for Hamilton County.

"Typically, the peak color for our area is the last week of October or the first week in November," Stebbins says. "The rainy summer in Chattanooga encouraged good growth in trees. It has dried out during September, so this should set up the trees for a nice show of color."

Shorter days and lower temperatures cause the trees to halt production of chlorophyll, which gives the leaves their green color, he explains. As the green fades, yellow and orange colors -- created by sugars in the leaves -- pop out. "They were there all along but masked by the green chlorophyll," Stebbins says.

In some trees, sap in the leaf cells create red, pink and purple pigments. "These pigments are not present during the summer, but their formation is encouraged during cool nights and sunny days of fall," Stebbins explains.

He says that, because no two trees are exactly alike, two maple trees of the same species, for example, often show differences in leaf color. "This is due to the amount of sugars in the fall leaves and the genetic difference between individuals."

An early freeze, though, will kill leaves, causing them to bypass the color stage by turning brown and falling off, he says. "However, cool-but-not-freezing temperatures will trap the sugars along with pigments in the leaf. Dry, sunny days during this period will favor red pigment development," while rainy days occurring near peak coloration will decrease color intensity.

While some area residents say they don't have to travel further than their own back yard to view Mother Nature's colorful showdown, others take road trips to specific destinations that may include national parks. However, as of today, all federal parks are closed due to the government shutdown. All 401 national parks in America are indefinitely closed, including the Chickamauga and Chattanooga Military Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

However, state parks are still open, as are leaf-viewing roads such as the Blue Ridge Parkway and Cherohala Skyway.

The Rev. Hunter Huckabay says he and his wife, Prestine, have homes in Chattanooga and in the Clifftops community in Monteagle. Their home in Monteagle offers the best place to enjoy the changing leaves, he says.

"We've had a house on the brow in Clifftops for 28 years," Huckabay says. "The view is never the same."

But most folks won't have to drive to find beautiful wooded areas in the Chattanooga area. Patrick McFadden of Signal Mountain says his best view of colorful leaves is from his back porch.

"Our house sits within a dense, deciduous forest that includes several varieties of oak, hickory, poplar, maple, dogwood, redbud and sourwood trees," McFadden says. "The forest is so dense, we cannot see our neighbors' homes through the leaves in the summer. So we get the entire show up close."

Happy Powell of Walden and Dinson Lee of St. Elmo say Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in Graham County, N.C., is their ideal location for leaf viewing. The drive from Chattanooga to Joyce Kilmer is about 130 miles, unfortunately, Joyce Kilmer is a national park and is closed at this time. Regardless, Powell says, the drive along Cherohala Parkway "is worth the trip."

"Joyce Kilmer is one of the only forests in the Eastern United States that has never been logged," Powell explains. "The trees there are like the great Sequoia in Yosemite. The drive over the Cherohala Skyway is incredible with leaves in different phases of coloration according to the elevation, which goes up to around 4,000 feet. The Cherohala begins in Tellico Plains and is a great day or overnight trip from Chattanooga."

Contact staff writer Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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