Americans are often accused of bragging that things are "bigger and better in the US." While that boast is arguable in many cases, when it comes to autumn color, the New World wins hands down.
In much of the northern hemisphere, leaves turn soft yellow and brown, with a splash of red here and there. But these are mere Roman candles compared to the pyrotechnics in North America. Photographs can't do justice to the startling scarlet, gold, purple and orange that blaze across hills and sweep into valleys. Views are beautiful for the first-timer – but just as memorable the 50th time around. Best of all, this annual show is absolutely free.
The shimmering hues follow the Appalachian Mountains from eastern Canada down to North Carolina, but the must-see region is New England. What makes it special are its russet-red barns and white farmhouses, steeple churches and village greens – all photogenic props for the pageant.
As for the intensity of color, that is down to a combination of soil, altitude and weather, plus particular species of trees. Not surprisingly, the familiar red maple flaunts bright red leaves. Black maples turn gold, while sugar maples can be fiery vermilion, yellow or orange. Sumac and sourwood are crimson; dogwood turns purple and birch gold; hickory is gleaming bronze. At ground level, blueberry barrens and cranberry bogs provide splashes of scarlet.
This annual phenomenon has its own language: "leaf peepers" arrive to see "the color" in "the foliage season." The spectacle is such an attraction that the US Forest Service website (fs.fed.us/fallcolors) devotes pages to it.
When To Go
In September and October, days are sunny and warm, but nights turn chilly. This drop in temperature triggers the change in leaves. A cold snap can alter the landscape almost overnight. Chlorophyll production grinds to a halt, allowing the natural anthocyanins (reds and purples) and carotenoids (oranges and yellows) to show through the leaves.
Why Do Leaves Change Color?
What makes a maple leaf turn fiery red, a beech become golden, or an ironwood transform through a rainbow of colors to deep plum?
Different chemicals in leaves control the colors we see. The leaves are packed with green chlorophyll, which harnesses energy from sunlight to combine water and CO2 to create sugars (plant food). Once the tree shuts down as it prepares for winter, the chlorophyll breaks down and other color chemicals take over. Carotene and tannins give the instantly recognizable colors of autumn, making leaves appear yellow, red and gold.
How to Predict the Peak
Up in Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada, the transformation starts in mid-September, then moves south through the New England states. Mother Nature disdains timetables; so forecasting the "peak" is impossible. But even in years rated disappointing by locals, first-timers are usually impressed. And finding the best spots is easy: radio and TV provide regular news; the provinces and states post daily updates on websites and telephone hotlines.
How to Leaf Peep
Great Train Escapes offers a unique all-inclusive tour by rail and motorcoach to see the highlights of all 6 New England states. The diversity will amaze you and the fall colors, white steeple-churches, covered bridges, and sugar shacks will leave you speechless. Travel by train during the daylight hours and spend evenings at gorgeous hotels. Overnights include Boston, Kennebunkport, Maine; North Conway, New Hampshire; Stowe, Vermont; Mystic, Connecticut; and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. For more information visit http://www.greattrainescapes.com.
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By Delilah Onofrey, Suntory Flowers
Photographs courtesy of Suntory Flowers
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