To capture colors from Chesapeake forests this year, I visited parks in New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland to document the changing leaves through a portrait series. You can find your own fall foliage with this regional guide.
The shades of orange and yellow that please leaf peepers appear when longer autumn nights trigger the end of the summer growing season. Trees cut off the flow of nutrients to their leaves, and disappearing chlorophyll reveals yellow pigments called xanthophylls as well as orange pigments called carotenoids.
Those pigments are actually inside the leaf year-round, but others known as anthocyanins are produced only in fall. Those create striking red and purple colors.
Eventually, all the pigments break down, leaving just the brown tannins seen in dead leaves.
Though the timing of fall foliage is entirely based on the length of night and day, environmental factors can impact the strength of the colors. Cool temperatures and ample sunlight, for example, can cause trees to produce more anthocyanins, resulting in brighter reds. Rain is another factor.
“Moisture in late summer and fall really affect how vibrant the colors are going to be,” says Craig Highfield, director of Forests for the Bay, a program of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, U.S. Forest Service and Chesapeake Bay Program that promotes sound forest management practices.
Different tree species have varying shades of color, so any healthy forest would be a promising destination for would-be leaf peepers.
“The more variety in color just means there’s more variety in trees out there, and that’s always a sign of a healthy ecosystem,” Highfield says.
Northern hardwood forests such as maple-beech-birch forests are known for having some of the most vibrant colors. But, if you live in a city you can also enjoy the show.
“Street trees are going to be vibrant as well.” Highfield says.
“And now is the time to appreciate our trees.”
View more photos of fall foliage.