why do trees leaves turn different colors in the fall
The vivid yellow and orange colors of fall leaves have actually been there throughout the spring and summer, but we havenБt been able to see them. The deep green color of chlorophyll, which helps plants absorb life-giving sunlight, hides the other colors. In the fall, trees break down the green pigments and nutrients stored in the leaves. The nutrients are shuttled into the roots for reuse in the spring
As leaves lose their chlorophyll, other pigments become visible to the human eye, according to Bryan A. Hanson, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at DePauw University who studies plant pigments. Some tree leaves turn mostly brown, indicating that all pigments are gone. Burgundy and red colors are a different story. Dana A. Dudle is a DePauw professor of biology who researches red pigment in plant flowers, stems and leaves. Dudle said: The red color is actively made in leaves by bright light and cold. The crisp, cold nights in the fall combine with bright, sunny days to spur production of red in leaves Б especially in sugar maple and red maple trees. Burgundy leaves often result from a combination of red pigment and chlorophyll. Autumn seasons with a lot of sunny days and cold nights will have the brightest colors. In some cases, about half of a treeБs leaves are red/orange and the other half green.
Dudle says that results from micro-environmental factors Б such as only half the tree being exposed to sunlight or cold. Hardwoods in the Midwest and on the East Coast are famous for good color selections. Some of the more reliably colorful trees, Hanson notes, are liquid amber trees (also called sweet gum) that turn a variety of colors on the same tree, and sometimes the same leaf. Ash tree leaves often turn a deep burgundy color. Ginkgo trees, although not native to North America, will feature an intense yellow, almost golden, color. The colors are doing something for the plant, or they wouldnБt be there, said Hansen. But what is the colorsБ purpose? Scientists think that with some trees, pigments serve as a kind of sunscreen to filter out sunlight. Hanson said: ItБs an underappreciated fact that plants cannot take an infinite amount of sun. Some leaves, if they get too much sun, will get something equivalent of a sunburn. They get stressed out and die. Another theory is that the color of a plantБs leaves is often related to the ability to warn away pests or attract insect pollinators. Hanson said: In some cases, a plant and insect might have co-evolved. One of the more intriguing scientific theories is that the beautiful leaf colors we see today are indicative of a relationship between a plant and insects that developed millions of years ago.
However, as the EarthБs climate changed over the years, the insects might have gone extinct, but the plant was able to survive for whatever reason. Because plants evolve very slowly, we still see the colors. So leaf color is a fossil memory, something that existed for a reason millions of years ago but that serves no purpose now. Bottom line: Biologists discuss why leaves change color. as featured on weather. com The Splendor of Autumn Every autumn we revel in the beauty of the fall colors. The mixture of red, purple, orange and yellow is the result of chemical processes that take place in the tree as the seasons change from summer to winter. During the spring and summer the leaves have served as factories where most of the foods necessary for the tree's growth are manufactured. This food-making process takes place in the leaf in numerous cells containing chlorophyll, which gives the leaf its green color. This extraordinary chemical absorbs from sunlight the energy that is used in transforming carbon dioxide and water to carbohydrates, such as sugars and starch. Along with the green pigment are yellow to orange pigments, carotenes and xanthophyll pigments which, for example, give the orange color to a carrot.
Most of the year these colors are masked by great amounts of green coloring. Chlorophyll Breaks Down But in the fall, because of changes in the length of daylight and changes in temperature, the leaves stop their food-making process. The chlorophyll breaks down, the green color disappears, and the yellow to orange colors become visible and give the leaves part of their fall splendor. At the same time other chemical changes may occur, which form additional colors through the development of red anthocyanin pigments. Some mixtures give rise to the reddish and purplish fall colors of trees such as dogwoods and sumacs, while others give the sugar maple its brilliant orange. The autumn foliage of some trees show only yellow colors. Others, like many oaks, display mostly browns. All these colors are due to the mixing of varying amounts of the chlorophyll residue and other pigments in the leaf during the fall season. Other Changes Take Place As the fall colors appear, other changes are taking place. At the point where the stem of the leaf is attached to the tree, a special layer of cells develops and gradually severs the tissues that support the leaf. At the same time, the tree seals the cut, so that when the leaf is finally blown off by the wind or falls from its own weight, it leaves behind a leaf scar.
Most of the broad-leaved trees in the North shed their leaves in the fall. However, the dead brown leaves of the oaks and a few other species may stay on the tree until growth starts again in the spring. In the South, where the winters are mild, some of the broad-leaved trees are evergreen; that is, the leaves stay on the trees during winter and keep their green color. Only Some Trees Lose Leaves Most of the conifers - pines, spruces, firs, hemlocks, cedars, etc. - are evergreen in both the North and South. The needle- or scale-like leaves remain green or greenish the year round, and individual leaves may stay on for two to four or more years. Weather Affects Color Intensity Temperature, light, and water supply have an influence on the degree and the duration of fall color. Low temperatures above freezing will favor anthocyanin formation producing bright reds in maples. However, early frost will weaken the brilliant red color. Rainy and/or overcast days tend to increase the intensity of fall colors. The best time to enjoy the autumn color would be on a clear, dry, and cool (not freezing) day. Enjoy the color, it only occurs for a brief period each fall. Text prepared by Carl E. Palm, Jr.
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