Skip to main content

NC State Expert Gives Fall Foliage Forecast

Despite drought conditions in parts of the state for most of the year, there should be plenty of colorful foliage worth seeing across North Carolina this fall, according to a North Carolina State University expert. Dr. Robert Bardon, associate professor of forestry and extension forestry specialist at NC State, says that in areas of the state that have experienced drought, people should expect to see colors early, and that the leaves will change color faster.

“People should be hoping for weather conditions that are warmer during the day and cooler at nighttime – since they create the most vibrant fall colors,” Bardon says. “However, if we have a wet fall, we can expect less vibrant colors this season.”

During the spring and summer, leaves manufacture most of the food necessary for a tree’s growth. The food-making process occurs in cells that contain the pigment chlorophyll, which gives the leaves their green color. The leaves also contain other pigments that are masked most of the year by the greater amount of chlorophyll.

In the fall, partly because of the changes in the period of daylight and changes in temperature, the leaves stop their food-making process. As the chlorophyll breaks down, the green color disappears and yellow colors surface. Other chemical changes create additional pigments that vary from yellow to red to blue.

Some of the understory trees – small trees, shrubs and vines that grow under the taller trees – across the state have already begun the chlorophyll breakdown process. Leaves at higher elevations in North Carolina, such as Mt. Mitchell, are the first to change, usually around the end of September or beginning of October, Bardon says. Then the trees in the lower elevations, moving south and east across the state, begin to change.

“North Carolina is very fortunate to have multiple opportunities to experience fall foliage, given the diversity of parks across the state, ranging from national parks, to state and local parks,” says Dr. Stacy Tomas, assistant professor and tourism extension specialist in parks, recreation and tourism management. “With the shrinking economy, everyone is feeling the pinch in their wallets. Heading out to a park to enjoy the fall foliage and taking in a picnic and a hike is a fun, affordable, family-friendly mini-vacation we can all enjoy.”