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Archive for Sunday, September 30, 1990

CONDITIONS ARE RIGHT FOR BRIGHTLY COLORED FOLIAGE THIS FALL

September 30, 1990

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The clear blue skies that have graced the area lately will translate into brilliant red leaves this fall, says a local botanist.

"If the weather continues like this, it could be a spectacular fall for colors, one of the best in recent history," said Craig Martin, associate professor of botany at Kansas University.

Martin said the recent combination of sunny days, cool nights and mild drought conditions would contribute to vivid fall colors.

"Trees take environmental cues," he said. "Red pigment, called anthocyanin, is formed from sugars in the leaves. It's a storage form of sugar. So anything that enhances the production of sugar, such as sunlight, enhances the formation of red pigment.

"I kind of like the orange that you get in worse years, but people really get off on this bright red stuff."

MOST OF the red leaves will be found on maple trees, Martin said. Hickories, elms, honey locusts and a number of other trees will sport yellow leaves.

"Yellow always shows up, unless there's a severe draught and the leaves die before changing color," Martin said.

Yellow pigments, unlike red ones, are unaffected by the weather. Known as carotenoids, the yellow pigments already are present in the leaves but masked by the green of chlorophyll. When the chlorophyll starts breaking down in the fall, the yellow pigment becomes visible.

Martin said some leaves, like those of sycamore trees, will turn only an unimpressive brown because they don't contain very much pigment.

If uncooperative weather ever dulls fall colors in traditionally showy trees, Martin suggests touring the Kansas prairies and Flint Hills, where sumacs and prairie grasses stand out.

"SUMACS don't follow the rules. They turn a bright flaming red no matter what," Martin said. "Why those plants are different is something that, to my knowledge, hasn't been investigated. It's just an oddball. It could be a different pigment."

Different species of prairie grasses take on various shades of yellow, gold, rust and brown.

"I think the prairie is often neglected when it comes to fall colors," Martin said.

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