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The Antrim Review of Bellaire, Michigan

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Peak fall color may be late, but worth the wait, experts say

REGION — With the calendar already at September's end, and little to no fall color showing at all as yet in most of the area, questions are being asked by many about the effect of cold winters and summer drought on local maples, beech and aspen trees. But although the color may be late, experts say it will be worth the wait.

Northern Michigan fall colors typically follow a timeframe that puts peak color in early to mid-October. However, this year looks like it may not be a "normal" year. A year ago, color was coming on quickly by Sept. 20, but this year promises much different timing.

Although the month-long drought of summer has had an effect on local trees, the recent ample rainfall is also playing a part, according to Jim Radabaugh, manager of the Michigan DNR's Forest Management Division's recreation and trails section in Gaylord.

"Trees are lush in Michigan right now without any drought stress," Radabaugh said last week. "This affects fall color in two ways. First, it can delay fall color some, as leaves stay greener longer and therefore stay on the trees longer. But eventually it can help our fall color. Barring any strong windstorms, this could make for an extended time of peak color in Michigan."

When asked what causes all that fall color every October, Radabugh offered a simple botany lesson.

"Leaves change color in the fall as trees go dormant for the winter," he said. "Leaves are the food-processing centers of trees, converting water and carbon dioxide from the air into sugar — a process known as photosynthesis. The trees use those sugars for energy for growth."

Chlorophyll, the chemical that gives leaves their green pigment, is the substance that makes photosynthesis possible, Radabugh said.

"As days grow shorter, trees "sense" that they'll no longer have enough sunlight for photosynthesis to continue," he continued. "Food-processing shuts down, chlorophyll begins to disappear, and the colors — yellows, oranges, reds and purples — begin to appear.

"Although the colors are always there," he said, "we don't see them in the summer because they're overpowered by the chlorophyll."

Because trees turn color as autumn arrives, colors appear earlier in higher elevations and in more northern regions, such as the Upper Peninsula.

"Though some color change is noted by mid-September in the Lake Superior watershed, it's usually on a roll by month's end, peaking in early to mid-October," Radabaugh stated. "Some of northern Michigan, like eastern Antrim County and the Gaylord area, will be in that same time frame, while more western portions of the county near Grand Traverse Bay will see full color a bit later."

Specific fall colors tend to partner with particular species of trees, the Forest Management division manager said. Sugar maples, for instance, produce bright oranges and fiery reds. Aspens turn a smoky gold. Hickories and silver maples turn mostly yellow. And oaks vary, depending on species, from red to russet, often much later in the season.

Fortunately, northern Michigan is blessed with millions of acres of deciduous forests, including large, uninterrupted tracts of state and national forest.

"Even a simple drive down a country road canopied by maple trees can be an awe-inspiring experience," Radabaugh said.

Local areas that are highly recommended for fall color viewing include Penney Bridge Road, Cascade Road and the Jordan River Road in the Jordan River Valley State Forest in Star, Jordan, and Chestonia townships of Antrim County, as well the Landslide Overlook in Chestonia Township, Murphy's Overlook in Echo Township and Warner Creek Pathway in Warner Township.

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Original Publication Date: September 24, 2015

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