Fall Foliage Failure: Why This Autumn's Colors Are So Faded in Connecticut

Back in August, the Associated Press, Yankee Magazine and New England Today were predicting glorious fall foliage this year. Two months later, lots of folks around Connecticut are wondering who stole those promised autumn colors.

The lack of brilliant leaves isn’t universal: there are places in this state where you can see the beautiful reds, golds and oranges of a traditional New England fall. There’s a section on Hebron Road in Bolton, for example, where the trees are ablaze with color. Depot Street and East Road in East Windsor also have some glorious woodlands. The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s interactive map suggests that the best color can be found in the northern half of the state this weekend.

But this fall the foliage has been spotty and often very late to arrive. Many areas still have trees clad in dull green or their leaves are fading to brown, and in towns like Windsor and sections of Bloomfield, the autumn foliage is only now approaching its peak.

Experts say the solution to the mystery of Connecticut’s often-missing fall colors is a combination of warmer than usual September and early October temperatures, unusually dry conditions for most of the fall, leaf fungus, and even gypsy moth infestations in some regions.

Chris Martin, Connecticut’s state forester, said he and his wife took a bike ride on the Windsor Locks Canal Trail last weekend and saw big woodland stretches where “it looked like it was still August.”

Martin is quick to add that there “were spots that were pretty darn good” in terms of foliage, but most trees were still green.

The problem for foliage lovers in Connecticut is that many areas simply “aren’t as vibrant as in past years,” said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest and Park Association. Hillsides and ridge lines that normally would be ablaze at this time of year are looking decidedly dull.

Hammerling said he’s gotten calls from many residents wondering why so many favorite trees are still unchanged this late into October, trees that would normally be all aglow by Columbus Day.

Martin said a major factor has been the unusually warm weather this fall, particularly the mild nighttime temperatures.

New England’s trees need chilly nights and sunny days to produce the sort of brilliant hues that were being predicted back in August, Martin and other experts say.

Throughout the spring and summer, the leaves of deciduous trees like maples use green chlorophyll to produce the food those plants need to grow. Those leaves include yellow or orange “carotenoid” bits, which also gives carrots their normal color, but those shades are hidden by the major amounts of green chlorophyll in the leaves.

When night temperatures fall into the 30s and low 40s, it becomes difficult for the sugars being produced by the leaves chlorophyll process to move down the branches and trunks of trees. The food-making process then shuts down, the chlorophyll dissipates and the green fades, allowing other colors to emerge.

Other chemical changes happen as well, according to experts, allowing sugar maples and beech trees and sumacs to display those brilliant and beloved reds, yellows and bronze colors, experts explain.

“We didn’t get the overnight temperature fluctuations” needed to bring out those traditional autumn colors, according to Martin.

“The long warm spell this fall might be helping some trees extend the growing season,” Tom Worthley, an associate professor with the University of Connecticut Extension Service, said in an email. “Green colors of some species will persist later and the changes in color will occur in a staggered, extended fashion, rather than all at once.”

Another key factor involved in what has been a disappointing autumn for many Connecticut leaf peepers are the very dry conditions throughout the state in recent weeks. As of Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor listed 100 percent of Connecticut as either abnormally dry or in moderate drought. This week’s heavy rains will certainly help our dried out woodlands, but the big winds that came with the storms also are likely to have blown down lots of leaves. Another big rainstorm is predicted for Sunday.

A lack of rainfall at a key time in the autumn puts stress on trees and “will mute the colors, make them less vibrant,” Martin said.

Connecticut suffered nearly two years of drought conditions that were finally eased by late winter, spring and summer precipitation.

Unfortunately, the warm and humid conditions that existed for most of the spring and summer before this latest dry spell hit also were perfect for various “foliar fungi.” Martin said the fungi are essentially minor problem for most trees, “kind of like tree acne,” but could have at least some impact on this year’s foliage.

Worthley said these types of fungus can “cause black spots and serious browning on certain leaves such as those of sugar maples.”

“In some locations, the foliar fungus has been so severe as to cause early leaf drop and dormancy on sugar maples,” Worthley said.

One final foliage problem in this state, particularly in sections of southeastern Connecticut, was the gypsy moth infestations that stripped or damaged tens of thousands of oaks and other trees.

Worthley said trees that were totally or partially defoliated by the pests “will have attempted to produce a new set of leaves, drawing upon stored carbohydrate reserves to do so.” He said those “refoliation leaves” could be full size or stunted or misshapen, saying it would be “anyone’s guess” as to what kind of autumn colors those poor leaves might produce.

So make sure you appreciate those Connecticut trees that have managed to produce glorious fall foliage despite the depredations of gypsy moths, “tree acne” and odd weather.

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