The best leaf color in WNC higher elevations is next weekend (Oct. 15-16)

Fall coloring on the Blue Ridge Parkway, October 2016; photo by Molly Morgan

Fall coloring on the Blue Ridge Parkway, October 2016; photo by Molly Morgan

Whether you resented or embraced the summer’s stifling refusal to leave us last month, its lingering high temperatures have greater significance than allowing our cardigans and hoodies to rest in the back of our drawers a while longer.

Dr. Beverly Collins, Western Carolina University’s resident “fall color forecaster,” says a warmer September means a delayed and spotty leaf change for fall 2016.

Collins is a professor in WCU’s department of biology and teaches classes focused on ecology, occasionally stepping into the environmental science department to teach. She became the official fall color forecaster this year, after fellow biology professor  (and assistant department head) Dr. Kathy Matthews decided to step down from her position. She had been providing the leaf change prediction for 11 years. Collins said she doesn’t take the title lightly.

“Something Kathy said [is that] people plan their vacations around the things we say,” said Collins, who also mentioned that being the fall forecaster means representing Western to an audience of tourists.

“I can’t control when the leaves change,” she continued. “There are lots and lots of factors that go into why leaves change and when they change and whether the colors are bright or not bright.”

photo by Molly Morgan

photo by Molly Morgan

The halt to photosynthesis and breakdown of chlorophyll causes leaves to fade into the yellows, reds and oranges we see in the fall. Warm weather helps to keep the trees photosynthesizing, but factors like day length, which doesn’t change from year to year, tell the trees to stop.

So, considering all of that, what’s the verdict?

Given the forecast, it’s looking like that fall may be a little more variable and may be a little longer, and may be a little duller… the good way of saying that is there’s going to be spots of color… and those spots of color may last longer,” concluded Collins. 

As spotty and anticlimactic as is it may be this year, according to Collins we can expect the “peak color” in Cullowhee over the weekend of Oct. 22-23. Plant life in higher elevations will hit their best coloring this coming weekend, Oct. 15-16, and the lowest elevations of Western North Carolina will be sporting the brightest colors in the last week of October.  She added that the drive down Highway 107 and 64 to Highlands is at peak coloring right now.

“Highlands is called ‘Highlands’ for a reason,” she said. “It’s a little bit higher in elevation, about 4,000 feet. And so as you go up the gorge, you’re gaining elevation and things are turning a little bit earlier. It’s cooler, and also probably there’s some cold air drainage there. That plus the particular tree species that grow along there.”

If you’re looking for another good place to take in the view, Collins suggests the trusty Blue Ridge Parkway.

“I get asked about [the best places] a lot,” she said, laughing. “I like the traditional places.”