Wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy those brilliant autumn leaf colors all year– rather than for a few short weeks? Maybe so, but the changing leaf color each fall is part of an important and complicated process that ends in their being shed at the end of each growing season. The actual term used to describe this process of leaf drop is known as abscission. Leaves fall as a result of unique cells that separate from each other based on physiological changes.
During the active growing season, production rates of auxin in leaves are consistent with other parts of the plant or tree. As long as these rates are steady, the cells of the abscission layer remain connected, which in turn, keeps leaves attached, alive, and active. However, as days shorten and temperatures cool, auxin production in leaves starts to decrease in response to changing conditions. As a result, fracture lines develop at the base of the leaf petioles and scarring builds up at the same point to form a protective barrier. Eventually, it’s just a matter of time before wind or rain provides that last nudge and the leaves are released, at least for most trees.
Oaks and beech trees are another story. They hang on to many of their leaves well beyond that of other broadleaf deciduous trees. These brown and tan, dead-looking marcescent leaves cling to branches until newly emerging growth pushes them off in spring.
Although leaves falling in autumn are a predictable event, leaf drop is not only seasonal. Plants and trees can lose their leaves for a number of reasons, namely from drought and other physical or environmental stresses. Although any tree is subject to leaf drop under such conditions, not all trees are considered deciduous or even semi-deciduous. Narrow-leafed evergreens such as fir, hemlock, pine and spruce are able to survive winter without foliage loss for two reasons. First, their leaves develop a protective waxy coating. On top of that, the fluid inside their cells contains a version of nature’s antifreeze. Since the attached foliage remains undamaged, there is no need for it to be shed.
While evergreen trees are beautiful year-round, deciduous trees are desirable for another reason. Their leaves provide vital organic matter and build structure and water holding capacity in the soil. So, each autumn, enjoy and savor the brilliant display of color. And in winter take pleasure in the evergreens. But be thankful for the deciduous trees too, in spite of all the leaves on the ground. They’re doing more good than you might have ever imagined.
To understand what’s involved each fall in the transformation from a sea of cool green to a kaleidoscope of red, orange, yellow and every shade in between, it is helpful to know two important points. The timing of leaf color change is primarily affected by the calendar and the intensity is a product of three main factors: color pigments, length of night and weather.
First are the pigments. There are three most responsible for leaf color. Most of us are familiar with the first, chlorophyll. You know it as having something to do with providing the basic green color found in leaves and grass. It’s required for photosynthesis, the chemical process that allows plants of all sizes to use sunlight to produce food.
A third pigment, anthocyanins are not present in leaves until autumn. Warm bright days of fall produce lots of sugars in the leaf. But as the days shorten and the nights cool, these excess sugars are trapped in the leaf as veins leading into and out of the leaves gradually close. The combination of bright light and trapped sugars stimulate the production of the anthocyanin pigments. They produce the vivid shades of reds and purple and the many hues in between.
But for me, the wonder and beauty of the season is not found in the science behind the leaf color change. Nope. I l find the best part about the fall is playing in the leaves. Children of all ages and even my dog Watson love playing in the leaves!