Chlorophyll makes leaves green all summer long. These chemicals bring about sugar and starch production. But when a cold snap strikes, a tree grows a layer of cork between the stem and leaf and blocks the flow of water and minerals. All the chlorophyll is used up.
What's left in the leaves, hidden beneath the green all along, are carotenoids. The bright yellows and oranges of the carotenoids color everything from carrots to egg yolks to daffodils to canaries. And they turn all of Michigan into a sea of gold.
But what about the reds and purples? Unlike the carotenoids, they have not been there all along, camouflaged by chlorophyll. When the night air cools, sugar is trapped in the leaves, producing anthocyanins. The resulting pigments may first edge a few leaves in purple, then turn whole trees to a fiery red.
Leaf color characteristics of some common trees:
- Ash: Leaves turn yellow.
- Bur oak: Buff to yellow. Turning brown before falling.
- Elm: Leaves turn yellow.
- Hard Maple: Brilliant red hues. Red pigmentation of some leaves breaks down before falling.
- Hickory: Leaves turn yellow.
- Red Oak: Brilliant red leaves in fall. Color probably not as intense as some hard maples.
- Soft maple: Leaves turn yellow. They donít turn brown before falling.
- Sumac: Redder and anything.
- Virginia Creeper: Bright red. Very spectacular when it grows on dead snags.
- Walnut: Turns yellow in fall. One of the first to turn and drop leaves. One of the last to leaf out in spring.
- White oak: Subdued red color of leaves in fall. Then turning brown and often staying on the tree until new leaves begin to grow in the spring.
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