Summer drought spells drabby fall color

Alex Doty • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:44 AM

“It really has been a hard year for trees, especially on the west side of the state,” said Bert Cregg, associate professor and extension specialist for Michigan State University's horticulture and forestry departments.

Fall color is a result of the breakdown of green pigments that reveals pigments that are already present or are accumulated in leaves. In Michigan, maples, oaks and sassafras are among some of the trees that provide our most consistent fall color.

“In terms of fall color, I think that it’s going to be earlier,” Cregg said. “I am a little concerned about the duration.”

Melanie Manion of the Ottawa County Parks Department said she also thought there would be some impact from the summer weather. She noted that the farther away from the Lakeshore, there will be a more noticeable impact.

“When you go farther inland, we have maple trees which have vibrant color,” she said. “When they are stressed, they color early and tend to not be as colorful.”

Experts say clear days and cool nights are best for fall color. This summer’s hot, dry weather has caused leaves to begin to turn color early in response to the lack of rain.

“There has been a lot of stress in our natural world,” Manion said. “These warm temperatures aren’t helping.”

Tree experts say the state is also seeing early leaf drop in areas where trees have been especially hard hit by drought. This suggests that the color show in Michigan could be earlier and shorter.

Cregg and Manion both said that it’s still possible this could change over the next few weeks if trees get some relief from the drought stress, and we get into a cooler and wetter weather pattern.

“A couple of long, steady rains would be real nice right about now,” Cregg said.

Cregg said that kind of weather would enable trees to hang onto their leaves, providing a longer color show.

The summer drought isn't just impacting fall colors, Manion said.

“In general, we’re seeing everything in nature being a month ahead because of the warmer temperatures,” she said. “It’s been a very odd year, and it has been difficult for invasive species management.”

"This has definitely been a record-breaking year," Cregg added.

For the state's fall color tour guide, click here.

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