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Dave Olson, Published September 20 2012

Fall colors could be fleeting due to dry weather

FARGO - If appreciation of autumn’s colors is intensified by the show’s fleeting nature, then this year’s production could be precious indeed.

“I think it’s going to happen really fast and when it does, you’re going to get a windstorm and it will be gone,” said Michael Kangas, of the North Dakota Forest Service office at North Dakota State University.

This weekend might be the peak for fall colors in North Dakota, according to Kangas, a self-described tree guy for whom autumn is a bittersweet time.

“I look forward to these two weeks every year,” he said. “I just love the fall colors, and there are no mosquitoes.”

This weekend and the days that follow will be prime color-viewing days in western Minnesota as well, according to officials at Itasca and Maplewood state parks.

Where to look

While North Dakota is not a heavily forested state, Kangas said people can find many spots to watch autumn’s spectacular finale, such as the Turtle Mountains in the north-central part of the state and the Pembina Gorge in northeastern north Dakota.

“Of course, there’s the Sheyenne River Valley that runs from Valley City all the way down to Lisbon that has just beautiful hillsides of various forest types,” said Kangas, who added that the North Dakota Badlands can be amazing in the fall, as can the Red River Valley, where ash trees are starting to “pop.”

In the case of Itasca, located near Park Rapids, Minn., fall’s chromatic extravaganza typically plays out in three acts, said Connie Cox, lead interpretative naturalist for the park.

“Right now, sugar maples, red birch and the red maples are showing the most color,” Cox said.

She added that as the reds and golds of the maples start to fade at the end of September, the oak and aspen will take the stage, only to bow out around the second week of October.

Then it is time for tamarack trees to shine.

“Those are the conifers that drop their needles every year,” Cox said. “Those will start turning gold probably by that second or third week of October.”

Experts say this past summer’s dry conditions may dim leafy displays this fall, but colors should be vivid enough to make a trip to Maplewood State Park near Pelican Rapids, Minn., worthwhile, said Jeff Fjestad, assistant manager at the park.

“We are still expecting a nice display of color. It’s going to be a little earlier this year,” said Fjestad, who expects the next two weeks to stay “pretty nice.”

He said underbrush color is peaking now and the sumac is a brilliant crimson.

Hidden beauty

While it’s common to hear people describe leaves as turning color, the lovely hues of red, orange and gold seen in the fall are actually present

all summer.

What changes is a leaf’s production of chlorophyll, a green pigment instrumental in the photosynthesis process trees use to absorb energy from light.

As chlorophyll production stops, other pigments in leaves become apparent.

“We call them carotenoids, and they’re also involved in the capture of certain wavelengths of light for photosynthesis. I guess you could say they are accessory pigments,” said Bryan Bishop, an associate professor of biology at Concordia College in Moorhead.

Bishop said the wavelengths of light most useful to plants reside on the ends of the color spectrum – reds at one end and blues at the other.

“The stuff in the middle, which tends to be green, is the least useful, and that’s what we see being reflected back,” he said.

Bishop said cool nights and warm days, such as those recently experienced in the area, can really help with the tree colors. But he added that this summer’s drought will likely play a big role in how impressive the leaves will be this fall.

“Plants are really stressed,” he said, adding that many leaves are simply turning brown and dropping off.

“I can’t say for sure with our drought if it’s going to be a good season for it (color viewing). Trees are so stressed,” Bishop said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555


Look before you peep

To check out the status of fall color at Minnesota state parks, visit the Department of Natural Resources home page at www.mndnr.gov.

Links to fall foliage reports are also available on the home page of the North Dakota Tourism Division at www.ndtourism.com and on the home page for the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department at www.parkrec.nd.gov.