Fall Foliage FAQs

An interview with an expert

It’s our favorite time of year again…Fall! In the midst of enjoying all the beautiful sights, sounds, and smells of the season, do you ever wonder what makes it all possible? Don’t let the leaves leave you guessing. Let an Interpretive Naturalist answer your fall foliage questions.

Q: When is the best time to see the leaves? When do they peak?

A: Leaves can change their color from as early as late September all the way through early November. Typically the second and third week of October are the peak times, but the last several years, leaves have had good color lasting on into early November.

Q: Where are the best places in Brown County to see the leaves?

A: The beautiful leaves can be seen all around, but great views can be found on a drive through the Brown County State Park. The vistas provide an elevated view that lets you see the wide array of trees and colors. Check out the 7 Vista Challenge while leaf peeping in the park!

Q: Why do trees change colors?

A: The response of trees to fall color is due to cooler nights with decreasing temperatures and the shorter photo-period (or daylight). All leaves have different types of chemicals in them that dictate their pigment and coloring. One of these chemicals, chlorophyll, is responsible for absorbing sunlight and gives leaves their green color. As daylight dwindles, chlorophyll production, which “masks” other color pigments in the leaf, shuts off. Once this happens, the various other color pigments are able to show through and you see leaves change colors.

Q: Which color pigments or chemicals dictate leaf color?

A: Obviously chlorophyll gives leaves their green color, but there are other chemicals found in leaves including tannins, anthocyanins, and carotenoids. The presence of tannins means leaves will turn brownish or tan. Anthocyanins are found in deep red and purplish leaves, while carotenoids give leaves their brilliant yellow and orange colors.

Q: Do certain types of trees produce specific colored leaves?

A:   Oaks: brown or russet
Hickory: golden bronze
Dogwood: purple-red
Birch: bright yellow
Poplar: golden yellow
Sassafras: orange
Tupelo: red
Maple trees show a wide range of colors:
Sugar Maple: orange-red
Black Maple: glowing yellow
Red Maple: bright scarlet
Silver Maple: muted green

Q: What kind of trees change colors first? Which trees are the last to change?

A: Tulip Poplar trees are by far the first. They can start changing colors as early as August. Sycamores and Walnut are probably the next to change, but they do not show much color in general. Oak and Beech trees are the last to change and are actually able to retain some of their leaves all the way through winter sometimes. All other types of trees fall somewhere in the middle.

Q: What impact will this year’s weather have on fall colors?

A: Weather plays a major role in the change of leaves each year, so as the weather is always changing, the time of the year the leaves change varies too. In general, fall color is due to cooler nights with decreasing temperatures throughout the day. So as long as there are no extreme weather conditions and fall temperatures remain relatively normal, the colors will show as usual.

Q: What makes the leaves fall?

A: Leaves fall to prevent the tree from dying. During the warmer months, trees get rid of excess water obtained from rain and moist soil through their leaves. However, in the fall as temperatures decrease, trees shed their leaves so the tree itself can retain water before the drying winter winds begin and the ground freezes over and little water can be obtained through the roots. Basically, the tree seals itself shut so it can save up as much water as possible to survive winter.

Q: What kind of Maple trees are there in Brown County and what are they like during the fall season?

A: There are four kinds of Maple trees in Brown County: Sugar, Silver, Red and Black. All of these produce the sugar water that can be boiled down into sap. The Sugar Maple is the one that gives New England their flooding of fall tourists and it can be found in Brown County too! There are not quite the weather extremes (warm days and cold nights) in the Midwest as there are in New England, which is what gives the Sugar Maple its brilliant show of colors, but there is still great color in the Maples in Brown County.

Q: Where can I go to learn more about the leaves in Brown County?

A: A great place to learn more about fall foliage is at the Nature Center at the Brown County State Park. Throughout the whole month of October there are a variety of programs and opportunities available, which are all free and all related to some aspect of fall.