A Stellar Fall Foliage Season Is On The Way

A rainy summer means New England is anticipating a riotously colorful fall season, despite the best efforts of ravenous insects to denude the region's forests.

"We're shaping up for a really, really good fall season — with a proviso for where the gypsy moths haven't hit," said Jeff Ward, chief scientist of forestry and horticulture at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

Peak color in Connecticut is expected by mid-October, while the forecasters say the trees will start to turn by the third or fourth week of September.

The state's sugar maples, whose flaming reds, oranges and golds highlight the autumnal palette, were mostly spared by the gypsy moths, he said. The leaf-greedy moths are an invasive species, brought to Massachusetts in the 19th century by an entrepreneur who mistakenly believed they could spin silk. Most of the moth-inflicted damage this year is centered around the I-395 corridor, said Chris Martin, state forester for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Despite the moths' feasting, "it could be a real humdinger of a year," Martin said. He expects a peak viewing window in Connecticut around Columbus Day weekend — but that date could be pushed back a few weeks if September is humid and warm. The color will begin in the state's northeast and spread south; he expects the coast will be aflame the first week of November.

Vermont has suffered its own peckish pest — the forest tent caterpillar, said Michael Snyder, commissioner of Vermont's forests, parks and recreation.

"It's like the gypsy moth in that it chews up tree leaves, and in particular our maples, but what's different from the gypsy moths — which is important — is that the tent caterpillar is native, and so it does less harm," he said. Natural predators like wasps, flies and fungal diseases tend to beat the caterpillars back by midsummer, he said, allowing some trees to regrow their leaves before autumn.

Apart from hungry caterpillars, Vermont's forests are healthy and poised for a fiery fall panorama, he said.

"All the factors are in place: excellent moisture early in the year, very few diseases, lots of sunshine," he said. "The trees are ready to do their part in Vermont, and if the weather cooperates, people can expect good color beginning the third or fourth week of September."

Judging from aerial footage, Vermont's forests are "as green as can be" after a rainy spring and summer, Snyder said.

Color will begin in Vermont's north and at higher elevations before progressing south and down into the valleys. The first wave of color is often muted, he warned, because the first trees to turn tend to be stressed or unhealthy. He expects color to peak around the last week of September through the first week of October.

Snyder is hoping a cold snap in coming weeks will warn the trees that fall is fast approaching.

"The same kind of cold snap that makes an apple sweeter — not a freeze, but a few cold nights followed by some bright sunshine — can really make the color pop and add a heightened level of vibrancy," he said. "It's like somebody flipped a fluorescent switch."

In Maine, fall foliage coordinator Gale Ross expects color to peak in the state's north the last week of September, in south and central regions around Columbus Day, and coastal areas in mid-October.

Maine has been largely spared by the gypsy moths, she said, with only minor denuding in the state's center.

The state's fiery maples will headline the fall spectacle, she said, although the oaks — which turn a burnished, tawny gold late in the season — make a strong case too.

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