The Science Behind Fall Color

Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) in full fall color
Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) in full fall color

In many parts of the U.S., particularly the northern U.S., we are blessed each year by nature’s display of bright color dotted through the landscape. Fall color of leaves at the end of the growing season provides a remarkable encore in the landscape. There are many trees and shrubs with great autumn leaf color and I will address some of them in my next week’s post, but this week, I will talk about what actually happens inside the plant during autumn.

Plant Pigments

As the days get shorter and temperatures start to cool, particularly at night, the season changes from green leaves into a kaleidoscope of yellow, orange, red, purple and bronze shades. There are a variety of factors that interact and play a role in determining how colorful the display will be. Plant leaves contain several pigments that determine the color that will appear and variations arise when different concentrations of pigments are combined in the leaf.

Eyestopper™ Amur corktree (Phellodendron amurense 'Longenecker'), a male cultivar with bright yellow fall color
Eyestopper™ Amur corktree (Phellodendron amurense ‘Longenecker’), a male cultivar with bright yellow fall color

Chlorophyll is the green pigment in leaves. This critically important pigment captures the energy from the sun and uses it to change water and carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen and sugars (carbohydrates), i.e. the plant’s energy source for growth and development. In autumn, chlorophyll breaks down faster than it is produced, revealing the other plant pigments and their colors.

A cutleaf weeping Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) bright orange fall color
A cutleaf weeping Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) bright orange fall color

Carotenoids are responsible for the yellow, orange and a few red pigment colors. This pigment is always present in the leaves during the growing season, but the colors become more evident as the chlorophyll breaks down in the leaf. In addition to providing us with a beautiful display, carotenoids protect leaves from harmful byproducts of photosynthesis. Since carotenoids are always present in leaves, yellow, gold and orange colors are least affected by the weather.

Anthocyanins are responsible for most of the red, pink, and purple colors we long for in autumn. Sugars in leaves accumulate as active growth slows down in autumn permitting the production of anthocyanins. These colorful pigments act as an internal sunscreen to protect the photosynthetic system allowing plants to recover nutrients from the leaves more easily as the temperatures decline. What about plants that have no anthocyanin pigments? These plants are usually more resistant to damage from bright light so they have no need to produce these protective anthocyanin pigments.

Tannins are not considered an actual plant pigment, but are responsible for some of the tan and brown colors we see in oaks and beeches in the fall.

Why Do Leaves Change Color?

During the summer, most of a plant’s nutrients are located within the leaves. The shortening of day length and cooler temperatures, particularly at night, signal the plant to begin preparing for winter by transporting carbohydrates (sugars) and mineral nutrients from the leaves to stems and roots for storage in the plant to be reused the following spring. A layer of cells at the base of the leaf stalk (petiole), called the abscission zone, gradually closes off the flow of sugars and minerals into and out of the leaf. In a process called senescence, chlorophyll breaks down causing the leaves to change color and eventually fall off the plant.

Variability of Fall Color and the Role of Weather

Many factors play a role in determining when fall color occurs and the intensity of the color. We cannot predict each summer how the autumn leaf color will be in the landscape. For example, peak (best) fall color can shift by as much as two weeks ahead or behind the normal time peak color occurs year to year based on the weather.

Plant Health and Moisture Levels

Plants that are in transplant-shock (newly planted), drought stressed, nutrient deficient or suffer from insects or diseases may have poor fall color or the exact opposite; they may have better fall color due to increased production of red pigments. Good soil moisture levels throughout the growing season followed by a dry fall can improve the intensity of fall color. On the other hand, excessively wet or drought conditions can cause poor color development. Drought conditions can cause leaves to dry, curl and drop before fall color has sufficiently developed, especially on newly planted material. However, moderate drought conditions may actually improve fall color development in some species, though these same plants may suffer during winter and have dieback apparent in spring.

Temperature, Light Levels and Mineral Nutrition

Cool, dry, sunny fall days with cooler night temperatures stimulate anthocyanin production resulting in bright reds and purples. In contrast, very warm autumn weather may reduce the production of these pigments. During unusually warm autumns, plants may accelerate fall color development, shortening the time leaves remain on the tree or shrub. Early, hard frosts may also severely damage leaves, arresting further fall color development before the brightest colors are revealed. Sufficient sunlight is required for leaves to produce the best coloration. Plants growing in dense shade will usually fail to develop the intense red and orange colors we have grown so fond of each autumn. High soil pH and deficiencies of the various essential mineral nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium, iron and high levels of the non-essential element sodium can all affect the intensity of color change in leaves. High sodium soil levels, most likely due to excessive road salt (NaCl) application the previous winter, not only stresses plants and prevents proper water uptake, but also can negatively affect autumn leaf color.

Genetics

Of course genetics play a key role in the intensity of fall color development. This is why some seed produced trees in the forest have great fall color, while seedlings from the same tree may have less intense or even no fall color. This is where plant cultivars come into play. A nursery person will select plants demonstrating superior fall color, improved cold hardiness, increased pest resistance, better growth form, etc. These superior plant choices will often have a cultivar name associated with it. For example, seedling grown red maple (Acer rubrum) will display a range of fall color from green, yellow, yellow-orange, orange, orange-red, red and purple. As gardener, we tend to choose what we like, mostly the orange, red to purple colors. If the plant is not already in commerce, the grower will select the best seedlings for fall color and vegetatively propagate and grow those particular seedlings, offering these new selections to other nurseries or garden centers. It is a win-win for both the nursery and the gardener!

An unknown cultivar of red maple (Acer rubrum) with uniform fall color
An unknown cultivar of red maple (Acer rubrum) with uniform fall color

Laura Jull, Ph.D.

a.k.a.: The “Lorax”

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Laura Jull

Associate Professor and Woody Ornamental Extension Specialist in the Dept. of Horticulture at University of Wisconsin-Madison

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