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Fall foliage season begins in Virginia

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RICHMOND, Va. – One week into Fall, and the trees in Virginia are right on time with their seasonal show! Fall foliage spotters for The Foliage Network report, “The color change has accelerated rather rapidly in much of Appalachian Mountains in western Virginia and West Virginia.”

If you want to see the best color right now, you’ll need to go into the higher elevations in western Virginia. For most of the mountains, though the color change is still less than 30% (which is considered to be “low color,” shown on the map as yellow). The green areas on the map below for central and eastern Virginia mean that color change is less than 10%, so you may already see some spotty color here and there, but not picking up widespread. If you want a weekend getaway to the higher terrain of West Virginia and extreme western Virginia, you can already find moderate color (31% – 60% change), with high color (61% – 80% change) on the ridges of West Virginia.

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Shenandoah National Park is always a great viewing destination with Skyline Drive. CLICK HERE for weekly foliage updates from the park.

As we are still early in Virginia’s Fall foliage season, leaf drop (leaves falling off the trees) remains low.

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Virginia typically reaches peak according to this timeline by region:

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So we still have almost a month until the peak in the mountains, and potentially into early November for us here in the Richmond Metro Area.

Foliage trained spotter Marek D. Rzonca of The Foliage Network says, “Warm, sunny days, cool, crisp nights and normal precipitation bring about the best foliage conditions.”

What happens during Fall itself can also impact how the colors progress. Some of those factors include Fall storms that can damage trees (from strong cold fronts with thunderstorm wind gusts to tropical systems), to rainfall (necessary for healthy trees), to temperatures (we want sunny, seasonally warm days and cool, dry nights), to the type of tree.

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Leaves change color, or rather, reveal all of their colors already present in the leaves, during the Fall season as a result of  shorter days and a lower sun angle. Chlorophyll (the green color we usually see on leaves in Spring and Summer) is produced in leaves as energy from the Sun is absorbed into the tree during Spring and Summer. Trees also need water (2014 rain has been below average, so that may dull some of our color) to work with the Sun’s energy to then produce the sugars that feed the tree. But Chlorophyll isn’t the only piece of the color puzzle. There are three components of a plant leaf that create the variety of colors we see during Fall as Summer fades to Winter.

Chlorophyll is the dominant green color during Spring and Summer. Carotenoids also present in leaves produce yellow, orange, and brown colors.  Anthocyanins is the final factor, and they add the richest, darkest, red to violet colors to leaves. They also are responsible for the red in some apples, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, and plums.

All three pigment pieces are present in the leaf through Summer, it’s just that the chlorophyll is the “dominator,” making leaves look green. As chlorophyll production dwindles, the other colors show.

The Virginia Department of Forestry explains, “Both chlorophyll and carotenoids are present in the chloroplasts of leaf cells throughout the growing season. During this time, chlorophyll is produced and broken down and leaves appear green. As days get shorter, chlorophyll production slows down until it stops. The green color is no longer visible, and other pigments present (carotenoids) with the chlorophyll are then revealed. During autumn, bright light and excess plant sugars produce anthocyanins within leaf cells.”

Daylight time is, therefore, the main reason why leaves change color. That doesn’t change year-to-year. However, the weather can play a significant role, affecting the brilliance and longevity of the Fall foliage season. If trees have been damaged by storms or distressed by drought, the colors will likely not be as bold, nor linger as long. If a strong storm system sweeps through with gusty winds during the leaf change, then leaves will drop early.

CLICK HERE to learn more about why leaves change color.

The Forest Service‘s Fall Color Hotline (1-800-354-4595) provides updates on the progress of Fall colors. Press “8″ for the Southern States report.
Virginia’s Fall Foliage Report Phone: 1.800.424.LOVE
Skyline Drive/Shenandoah National Park – 540.999.3500 (press “6”)

Submit your Fall foliage pictures from this year to Carrie by emailing your photo to crose@wtvr.com. Yours may be featured on the CBS 6 Morning Newscast! Be sure to include your name, location of photo, and date it was taken.