Fall in the Midwest: Colors are subtle but lasting

by Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp

The magic of fall color in the Midwest is as much science as it is the environment. From Minnesota to Ohio, the color palette depends on the types of trees, what the fall days and nights are like and whether it's rained.

It starts with shorter days, which triggers a whole series of processes, says Ed Hedborn, a botanist who manages plant records at the Morton Arboretum outside Chicago in Lisle, Ill.

With less daylight, trees and other plants stop making chlorophyll, whose absence unmasks the yellow, orange and brown hues of the pigment carotenoid, which is always in the leaves, but hidden by the green.

In autumn, trees are bulking up for the winter. When the days are sunny and the nights cool, the plants manufacture sugars, which are held in the leaf tissue. The more sugars stored, the redder or more purple the leaves appear. If the days are cloudy, the reds will likely have orange and yellow tones.

The soil also contributes to leaf color. Most of the region has alkaline to neutral soil, which tends to keep tones a bit subdued compared to the acidic soil of the Northeast.

"What strikes me is that the colors are not quite as intense," says Mark Zelonis, deputy director of environmental and historic preservation at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Zelonis grew up in the woods of New Hampshire until moving to Indiana 13 years ago.

He says sugar maples are more red in the Northeast, while here they tend to be more orange and yellow. And, it's not just watching the leaves change color that thrills Zelonis. "When the leaves drop and carpet the grass, they reflect light back up into my office, giving it a wonderful golden warmth," he says.

Another difference in our autumns is the subtleness of colors and how long the season and color lasts, especially in the lower Midwest where snowfalls tend to be later in the season.

The subtleness of colors fascinates Paul Koloszar, a horticulturist at the Civic Garden Center of Greater Cincinnati, a not-for-profit horticulture resource center in an urban setting. For an urban tree, he likes the gingko or maidenhair tree, a living fossil from prehistoric times that turns bright yellow in fall before dropping its leaves all at once.

"If you look, some of the leaves will be yellow with a band, and when they fall, create a carpet that fades out on the edges of the lawn," he says.

Midwesterners benefit from a long season of color because our moderate temperatures allow trees and shrubs to retain their leaves longer. And for many, the sugar maples are the royalty of fall color. "When the days are crisp and I'm walking to my office and the sugar maple has those butter-yellow leaves - I just stop in my tracks," Zelonis says.

Sometimes known as the Hoosier Gardener, Jo Ellen Meyers Sharp lives in Indianapolis, where she manages perennials and woody plants for a large, independent garden center. A freelance writer, her work appears in many publications, including The American Gardener and Garden Gate. Sharp also speaks about gardening throughout the Midwest and is a director of the Garden Writers Association.


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