Color changes

One of the larger trees in Liberty made its colorful change for the season across the street from First Presbyterian Church in the 100 block of Main Street.

Missouri is blessed with a variety of trees, shrubs and vines that make the fall season come alive with color. Leaves change color at different times, so a fall color season in Missouri may last four to six weeks.

Missouri trees first begin changing color in the northern part of the state, then move southward, states a release. Sassafras, sumac and Virginia creeper are some of the earliest to change, beginning in mid-September. By late September, black gum, bittersweet, and dogwood are turning, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.

What happens to the green leaves from spring and summer? Chlorophyll is what gives leaves the green color. Chlorophyll helps plants make energy from sunlight — a process called photosynthesis. As summer fades into fall, the days start getting shorter with less sunlight, which signals the leaves to prepare for winter and to stop making chlorophyll. Once this happens, the green color starts to fade then the reds, oranges and yellows become visible. However, moisture and temperature play a role as well.

An extreme drought in the summer can delay the changing of the colors in fall. Temperature plays a part in the ultimate vividness of the color. Chilly fall nights play a big role in the color display.

"Sugars produced by photosynthesis become trapped inside leaves. Those sugars are the building blocks for the rich red, yellow, orange and purple pigments. Cooler nights cause the breakdown of green pigments, allowing fall colors to show through; bright, cloudless fall days are ideal for a good display of autumn color," states a release.

Colors usually peak around the third weekend of October, but Mother Nature is a woman of mystery, states the release.

“It’s always questionable until the last minute what will happen,” said University of Missouri Extension horticulturist David Trinklein. “Fall color is like Christmas morning. You don’t know if you are going to get an orange or a lump of coal in your stocking.”

Some years are better than others, but about once a decade colors really pop, and 2021 might be one of those years, Trinklein said.

Missouri’s size and diverse landscape make it possible to follow the color from one part of the state to the other. Color changes begin in northern Missouri and move south. 

Sugar maples are the heavy hitters of fall foliage color. They burst with yellows, golds and reds along limestone bluffs bordering the Missouri River. Other species, such as hickories, yellow poplar and persimmon, light up the landscape with their lush yellows and golds. Not to be left out of the show, oaks add rustic reddish-browns for contrast.

Of course, the changing of leaves is not just for show. Leaf shedding is part of the dormancy process that helps trees survive winter, Trinklein said.

Leaf color intensity depends on temperature, light and the availability of water throughout the year. Color-watchers favor a steady supply of mild, sunny days and cool but not freezing nights for the best chance of fall brilliance. Leaves also need some moisture for colors to intensify.

Contrary to common belief, frost is not necessary for trees to begin their color show, Trinklein said. Early frosts may even tarnish leaf color.

What will this fall bring?

“Whatever the outcome, fall leaf colors are a treat we are privileged to witness only once each year,” Trinklein said. “Therefore, take time to enjoy them.”

Looking for the best place to view changing foliage, check out the Missouri Department of Conservation’s fall color report at mdc.mo.gov/fallcolor. This fall, get outdoors and enjoy our fall colors with a hike or a road trip or two.

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