The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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September 7, 2013

Experts be-leave this fall: Autumn analysts calling for color

JOHNSTOWN — The summer rainfall in the Cambria-Somerset region was sufficient and the insects and fungus managed, all important elements in what foresters and others think will produce a good fall leaf show.

Unlike the drought of 2010 that forced an early leaf drop with far less color and 2011 with its unseasonably warm winter resulting in sporadic leaf shows, this year should bring little disappointment, foresters believe.

“All the signs are pointed toward an average or above average fall color season,” said Cory Wentzel, forest assistant manager at Forbes State Forest.

“Usually the colors of yellows and reds are brighter when you have warm sunny days leading up to fall and nights without frost,” Wentzel said late last week in a telephone interview from his Laughlintown office.

A premature leaf turning of dogwood trees, especially in the middle part of the state, has some wondering if other trees will turn color earlier than usual, but it’s too early to tell, said Edward Dix, a forester and botanist with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“Maples usually come first, but here in the Harrisburg area, all the dogwoods are looking maroon and we don’t know why,” Dix said. “There’s been nothing obvious about the weather pattern.”

It’s all about the weather from early spring through fall in determining the fall leaf show, said Tom Ford, a commercial horticultural expert with Penn State Cooperative Extension.

For that reason, some areas in Somerset County, those that received heavier-than-normal rainfall in the spring, may not see the the impressive harvest colors, Ford said.

“We are seeing premature leaf drop and some leaves are dropping while still green,” he said. “In Somerset County there was spotty rains in the early spring, April and May, just as the leaves were coming out.”

Calls into Ford’s Ebensburg office indicate that the leaves of some maple trees are being impacted by the rainfall.

“We always pay the price for those early rains,” he said.

Deciduous trees – those that lose their leaves seasonally – come equipped with what Dix called a “chemical clock,” which he says tells the tree what time of year it is.

“During the day there is a buildup of light which breaks down at night,” Dix said.

“Once the days start to grow shorter than the nights, more breakdown goes on and the leaves turn color.

“When the days get shorter, the trees start preparing for dormancy,” he said.

The extent of the color show is determined largely by the growing season, including rainfall, he said.

“We had fairly regular rain and a good growing season. There should be lots of color in the leaves, especially the reds,” Dix said.

The prediction holds true for the Cambria-Somerset region and all of the other 65 counties in Pennsylvania.

“Nowhere in Pennsylvania was it dry,” he said. “It was a good tomato season. It will be a good fall leaf season.”

The state, because of the diversity of its tree species, provides a far better leaf show than most other states, even those in New England, where yellow is the predominant color.

“Pennsylvania, specifically the Laurel Highlands region, is a melting pot of two distinct forest types,” Wentzel said.

Most of the southern part of the state is covered with oak-hickory dominated forests, but the elevation in this region brings some of the northern hardwood forest species such as the sugar maple  – “the King of Autumn,” Wentzel said.

“With this widely diverse mix of tree species in the Laurel Highlands, especially the abundance of sugar maples and red maples, some say the peak of fall color rivals some of the New England states in the Northeast,” he said.

Kathy Mellott covers environmental issues for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at

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