Back-to-back weekend washouts in early October may have cast a dark and dreary shadow over South Jersey.
But a few weekends of perfectly-timed gloom could be responsible for an explosion of brilliant colors in the coming weeks.
Drought-busting rains in early October may be the spark that turns what would have otherwise been a dull fall foliage year into a brilliant and vibrant array of autumn color by early November. Foresters and foliage experts predict South Jersey may fare better than surrounding areas still struggling with an ongoing drought.
Courtney Compton is a forester with the New Jersey State Forest Service who was seeing the first signs of this year’s color while out in the pinelands last week.
“The Northern Catalpa tree, with its large heart-shaped leaves, is already showing some really bright yellows,” Compton observed.
Compton said the trees that constitute the core of the local forest color are oak, maple, black gum, sweet gum, and sassafras. Each tree presents a different shade of color to the pineland’s fall palette.
While red maples are typically the most colorful, Compton noted gum trees can produce some vibrant and varied colors.
“The sweet gums turn yellow, while the black gum can be a purple or maroon when they start to turn, then morph into a bright red or orange,” Compton said.
She added that while some scarlet oaks can turn red, most oak species turn a burnt orange or brown, and are usually the last trees to change color. Sassafras trees can use the whole spectrum, but usually favor orange, Compton said.
And to bring out the best in the colors, rain is a good thing.
“Water is a key word when it comes to fall color,” said Karl Niklas, a professor of plant biology at Cornell University.
The National Weather Service says more than 5 inches of rain fell across South Jersey during a two week-stretch from Sept. 27 through Oct. 9. That rain helped to fend off a drought that had been developing across the area since early August.
Not only have the recent rains helped the amount of color we’ll likely see, Niklas said, but also the amount of time we will have to enjoy it.
“If the trees get adequate water, they will not be as stressed and will not drop their leaves as quickly,” he explained. “Hence, a longer season.”
While the weather can dictate both the vibrancy and the length of each year’s fall foliage, the timing is simply driven by the seasons.
“The shorter days and loss of daylight is the big driver telling trees it’s time to change,” Compton stated.
During September and October, the days grow shorter by an average of two-and-a-half minutes per day. That equates to a loss of more than two hours of daylight since September 1.
In addition to the loss of daylight, another key to ignite the color change is the big temperature swings between day and night that are common in the early fall.
“A 30-degree difference between the cool nighttime lows and warm afternoon highs really stimulates the destruction of chlorophyll and kick starts the coloring process,” Niklas explained.
As the chlorophyll becomes less dominant, the other pigments left in the leaves have a chance to shine, Compton said. Carotinoids cause the orange color, while anthocyanins reflect the reds in autumn leaves.
The National Weather Service said this September was in the top ten for warmest Septembers on record in South Jersey, with records dating back to 1874.
Compton said warmth may lead to a slightly later than normal peak this fall, likely sometime in the first half of November.
When that peak arrives, a drive deep into the Pinelands may be your best bet for maximum color.
“Swamps and wetland areas are some of the most colorful and scenic in South Jersey,” Compton said.
Niklas also recommends steering clear of areas suffering from an ongoing drought while on a quest for finding the most brilliant fall colors.
“You’ll still get autumn coloration, but it won’t be nearly as spectacular as it normally is,” cautioned Niklas.
The National Drought Mitigation Center reports a widespread severe to extreme drought through much of the Northeast. Hardest hit areas include parts of upstate New York as well as southern and eastern New England.
But here in South Jersey, the wet start to October will likely lead to a very colorful start to November, proof that good can indeed come out of a few wet weekends.