The Chemistry Behind the Color
Three things affect fall colors: Length of day/night; weather; and pigments (there are three categories of pigment that contribute to fall colors).
The green pigment in leaves is chlorophyll, which absorbs red and blue light from sunlight. Therefore, the light the leaves reflect is diminished in red and blue and appears green. The molecules of chlorophyll are large (C55H70MgN4O6). They are not soluble in the aqueous solution that fills plant cells. Instead, they are attached to the membranes of disc-like structures, called chloroplasts, inside the cells. Chloroplasts are the site of photosynthesis, the process in which light energy is converted to chemical energy. In chloroplasts, the light absorbed by chlorophyll supplies the energy used by plants to transform carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and carbohydrates, which have a general formula of Cx(H2O)y.
In this endothermic transformation, the energy of the light absorbed by chlorophyll is converted into chemical energy stored in carbohydrates (sugars and starches). This chemical energy drives the biochemical reactions that cause plants to grow, flower, and produce seed.
Chlorophyll is not a very stable compound; bright sunlight causes it to decompose. To maintain the amount of chlorophyll in their leaves, plants continuously synthesize it. The synthesis of chlorophyll in plants requires sunlight and warm temperatures. Therefore, during summer chlorophyll is continuously broken down and regenerated in the leaves of trees.
Another pigment found in the leaves of many plants is carotene. Carotene absorbs blue-green and blue light. The light reflected from carotene appears yellow. Carotene is also a large molecule (C40H36) contained in the chloroplasts of many plants. When carotene and chlorophyll occur in the same leaf, together they remove red, blue-green, and blue light from sunlight that falls on the leaf. The light reflected by the leaf appears green. Carotene functions as an accessory absorber. The energy of the light absorbed by carotene is transferred to chlorophyll, which uses the energy in photosynthesis. Carotene is a much more stable compound than chlorophyll. Carotene persists in leaves even when chlorophyll has disappeared. When chlorophyll disappears from a leaf, the remaining carotene causes the leaf to appear yellow.
The prime example is the early season color change showing the unique characteristic of aspen growth. Aspen propagate primarily by sprouting from an expanding root system, creating groups of trees, or clones, ranging in size from several trees to many acres. These clones are genetically identical. One factor in how and when a tree changes color is the balance of various chemicals in the plant. This balance is, to some degree, genetically determined and varies between clones. Because of these differences, it is possible to see hillsides with one small group of trees that have already changed to vibrant gold colors standing among otherwise green aspen. This color change allows viewers to readily see individual aspen clones.
A third pigment, or class of pigments, that occur in leaves are the anthocyanins. Anthocyanins absorb blue, blue-green, and green light. Therefore, the light reflected by leaves containing anthocyanins appears red. Unlike chlorophyll and carotene, anthocyanins are not attached to cell membranes, but are dissolved in the cell sap. The color produced by these pigments is sensitive to the pH of the cell sap. If the sap is quite acidic, the pigments impart a bright red color; if the sap is less acidic, its color is more purple. Anthocyanin pigments are responsible for the red skin of ripe apples and the purple of ripe grapes. A reaction between sugars and certain proteins in cell sap forms anthocyanins. This reaction does not occur until the sugar concentration in the sap is quite high. The reaction also requires light, which is why apples often appear red on one side and green on the other; the red side was in the sun and the green side was in shade.
During summer, the tree leaves are factories producing sugar from carbon dioxide and water using by the action of light on chlorophyll. Chlorophyll causes the leaves to appear green. (The leaves of some trees, such as birches and cottonwoods, also contain carotene; these leaves appear brighter green, because carotene absorbs blue-green light.) Water and nutrients flow from the roots, through the branches, and into the leaves. Photosynthesis produces sugars that flow from the leaves to other tree parts where some of the chemical energy is used for growth and some is stored. The shortening days and cool nights of fall trigger changes in the tree. One of these changes is the growth of a corky membrane between the branch and the leaf stem. This membrane interferes with the flow of nutrients into the leaf. Because the nutrient flow is interrupted, the chlorophyll production in the leaf declines, and the green leaf color fades. If the leaf contains carotene, as do the leaves of birch and hickory, it will change from green to bright yellow as the chlorophyll disappears. In some trees, as the sugar concentration in the leaf increases, the sugar reacts to form anthocyanins. These pigments cause the yellowing leaves to turn red. Red maples, red oaks, and sumac produce anthocyanins in abundance and display the brightest reds and purples in the fall landscape.
The range and intensity of autumn colors is greatly influenced by the weather. Low temperatures destroy chlorophyll, and if they stay above freezing, promote the formation of anthocyanins. Bright sunshine also destroys chlorophyll and enhances anthocyanin production. Dry weather, by increasing sugar concentration in sap, also increases the amount of anthocyanin. So the brightest autumn colors are produced when dry, sunny days are followed by cool, dry nights.
In recent years, fall colors have been attracting more travelers to prime color regions: New England, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Colorado. The right combination of tree species and likely weather conditions produce the most spectacular displays in these regions. States in these regions maintain a fall foliage "hotline," keeping color watchers apprised of the peak viewing locations and times. The Forest Service also operates a Fall Foliage Hotline at 800-354-4595. A detailed report can be found on the Web at www.fs.fed.us/news/fallcolors/.
Length of Day/Night
The synthesis of chlorophyll in plants requires sunlight and warm temperatures. Long, hot, summer days are ideal conditions for the continuous production and break down of chlorophyll. As days get shorter and cooler the production of chlorphyll slows and is no longer replacing the chlorophyll that gets broken down.