"Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower," said French author and philosopher Albert Camus, and he very well may have been describing the palette of colors soon to be showcased in South Carolina.
Each autumn, South Carolina’s hardwood forests change from hues of green and start showing their true colors. This natural phenomenon occurs every year, painting the countryside with beautiful shades of yellow, orange, red, pink, bronze, purple and brown. Adding to fall’s show is a carpet of purple and gold wildflowers.
While the effect can be simply breathtaking, the explanation behind the color change is anything but simple, according to a state natural resources botanist.
"Leaf color is caused by the interaction of sunlight with chemical materials called pigments found inside the leaves," said Dr. Bert Pittman, botanist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ Heritage Trust Program. "Pigments that produce intense autumn color are present in leaves the entire growing season, but during spring and summer, the green pigment dominates and covers the other pigments. So green is the predominant color we see until autumn."
Pittman said the green pigment in leaves is chlorophyll, the chemical associated with the complex process of photosynthesis, the "life blood" of all green plants. Chlorophyll is abundant in leaves all spring and summer; it breaks down easily, but the tree steadily replaces it so the leaves continue to be green.
"With the coming of autumn, chlorophyll production declines," Pittman said. "As the nights grow longer, the production of new chlorophyll diminishes, while old chlorophyll continues to break down. The leaf no longer makes food and starts to die."
As the chlorophyll fades the green color disappears, allowing other colors to become visible. The green is first replaced by orange or yellow-orange, then by red. Brown is the last color to appear, just before the dry, dead leaf falls off the tree.
Weather affects leaf pigments in many ways, Pittman said. Autumn colors are more vivid in some years due to weather conditions. Ideal for intense fall color are extended periods of dry, cool, clear weather with plenty of sunlight and no early severe frost. A severe frost kills leaves outright, and when this happens, the leaves die, turn brown and fall to the ground, bypassing the colors of autumn.
Whatever the conditions this season, Pittman recommends visiting one of South Carolina’s mountain heritage preserves to observe fall colors and autumn wildflowers like goldenrod and purple mistflower. The heritage preserves located in the mountains—acquired and protected by the DNR’s Heritage Trust Program—are less likely to be crowded during the peak fall color season than some of the traditional favorite scenic areas.
The mountain heritage preserves include Eastatoee Creek, Laurel Fork, Wadakoe Mountain and Glassy Mountain in Pickens County; Watson, Ashmore, Bunched Arrowhead, Chandler, Chestnut Ridge and Poinsett Bridge in Greenville County; and Buzzard Roost and Brasstown Creek in Oconee County. Outdoor recreation such as hiking and birdwatching is encouraged, and hunting and camping are allowed at some of the preserves. Fall wildflowers are abundant at most preserves. The 44,000-acre Jocassee Gorges area in Oconee and Pickens counties, which includes Eastatoee Creek, Laurel Fork and Wadakoe Mountain heritage preserves, is an excellent area to view autumn leaf color.
For more information on heritage preserves, write to Heritage Preserves, DNR, PO Box 167, Columbia, SC 29202, call (803) 734-3886 in Columbia.
Heritage Trust’s mission is to protect South Carolina’s rare plants, animals, plant communities and other features of the state’s natural and cultural heritage. Formed by state law in 1976, Heritage Trust has protected about 81,409 acres on 70 state heritage preserves found throughout South Carolina.
DNR protects and manages South Carolina’s natural resources by making wise and balanced decisions for the benefit of the state’s natural resources and its people.