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EarthSky // Earth, Science Wire Release Date: Oct 02, 2015

Why do tree leaves change color in fall?

In the fall, the leaves of some trees turn yellow, orange or red. The bright colors are wonderful to behold. But do they have some hidden purpose?

Autumn leaves at Hurricane Mountain in the Adirondacks, New York, September, 2015. Photo by John Holmes.  Thank you John!

Autumn leaves at Hurricane Mountain in the Adirondacks, New York, September, 2015. Photo by John Holmes. Thank you John!

The vivid yellow and orange colors have actually been there throughout the spring and summer, but we haven’t been able to see them. The deep green color of chlorophyll, which helps plants absorb life-giving sunlight, hides the other colors. In the fall, trees break down the green pigments and nutrients stored in the leaves. The nutrients are shuttled into the roots for reuse in the spring

As leaves lose their chlorophyll, other pigments become visible to the human eye, according to Bryan A. Hanson, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at DePauw University who studies plant pigments. Some tree leaves turn mostly brown, indicating that all pigments are gone.

Autumn leaf in about mid-September 2012 from EarthSky Facebook friend Colin Chatfield in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Burgundy and red colors are a different story. Dana A. Dudle is a DePauw professor of biology who researches red pigment in plant flowers, stems and leaves. Dudle said:

The red color is actively made in leaves by bright light and cold. The crisp, cold nights in the fall combine with bright, sunny days to spur production of red in leaves – especially in sugar maple and red maple trees. Burgundy leaves often result from a combination of red pigment and chlorophyll. Autumn seasons with a lot of sunny days and cold nights will have the brightest colors.

Image Credit: treehouse1977

In some cases, about half of a tree’s leaves are red/orange and the other half green. Dudle says that results from micro-environmental factors – such as only half the tree being exposed to sunlight or cold.

Hardwoods in the Midwest and on the East Coast are famous for good color selections. Some of the more reliably colorful trees, Hanson notes, are liquid amber trees (also called sweet gum) that turn a variety of colors on the same tree, and sometimes the same leaf. Ash tree leaves often turn a deep burgundy color. Ginkgo trees, although not native to North America, will feature an intense yellow, almost golden, color.

Autumn, early October 2012 in Hibbing, Minnesota. Photo by EarthSky Facebook friend Rosalbina Segura.

The colors are doing something for the plant, or they wouldn’t be there, said Hansen. But what is the colors’ purpose?

Scientists think that with some trees, pigments serve as a kind of sunscreen to filter out sunlight. Hanson said:

It’s an underappreciated fact that plants cannot take an infinite amount of sun. Some leaves, if they get too much sun, will get something equivalent of a sunburn. They get stressed out and die.

Another theory is that the color of a plant’s leaves is often related to the ability to warn away pests or attract insect pollinators. Hanson said:

In some cases, a plant and insect might have co-evolved. One of the more intriguing scientific theories is that the beautiful leaf colors we see today are indicative of a relationship between a plant and insects that developed millions of years ago. However, as the Earth’s climate changed over the years, the insects might have gone extinct, but the plant was able to survive for whatever reason.

Because plants evolve very slowly, we still see the colors. So leaf color is a fossil memory, something that existed for a reason millions of years ago but that serves no purpose now.

Image Credit: Ross Elliott

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Bottom line: Biologists discuss why leaves change color.

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