Time to change colors
At the end of summer and the beginning of autumn, the length of days and the average temperature begin to decrease. Then the trees “know” that it is time to get ready for winter, their sleep-time, and the leaves stop making food. Since there is no longer a need for them, the chlorophyll molecules break down, and so the green color begins to fade. As we, the grieving viewers of this process, say farewell to the color of life, we are surprised by the splendor demonstrated by vibrant colors ranging from yellow to orange.
All these colors are due to the mixing of varying amounts of the chlorophyll residue and other pigments in the leaf becoming visible during the fall season. For the realization of this beauty, mixtures of pigments give rise to the reddish and purplish fall colors of trees such as dogwoods and sumacs, while others offer the sugar maple its brilliant orange or yellow. In some trees, like the maple, a red pigment will be formed in the fall if the days are warm and the nights cold. These trees produce sugar in the leaves during the day, but this sugar cannot move out when the nights are cold, and the leaf’s connections to the tree begin to break down. After that the high sugar concentration favors the formation of a class of pigments called anthocyanin, which is red. Thus, the leaves left out in the sunlight turn red through this process. The brown color of trees (like oaks) that appears after chlorophyll breaks down comes from plant wastes left in the leaves. The autumn foliage of some trees is only yellow, so it is the combination of all these things that makes the beautiful colors we enjoy in the fall.
Thanks to scientific research, today we know the details of leaf color change. The approximate size of these pigments is so small that hundreds of millions of them, put edge to edge, could measure only 1 meter. Isn’t it amazing how the beauty of autumn is exhibited through the hands of such small and blind painters?
Abdullah Akpinar is a graduate student in Planning and Landscape Architecture at Clemson University, Southern Carolina.
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