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Leaves begin changing colors as fall hits full swing

PHOTO PROVIDED Maple leaves go through a process of change from green to yellow to red.

In Bradford County this year our leaves are about a week earlier than other years. By the time you are reading this column, the peak of leaf color will have passed up here in Bradford County. However, Mary Alice and I noticed that the leaf color was not as far along in the Williamsport Area.

In the past, the peak of leaf color depended on which expert’s opinion you believed. The report given this fall is that the leaves will be at their peak on Oct. 12 and past their peak on Oct. 19.

Although the foliage color is often in question, with one expert saying the leaves will shrivel, turn brown and fall from the trees, while another expert says that the leaves will be brilliantly colored.

No one can deny the beauty of the hillsides and mountains when our leaves change color. Many leaf peepers have begun taking rides on backroads and up the mountain to see the jeweled tone colors of the leaves. I was surprised to read when we see the leaves changing colors we are, in essence, watching the leaves starving themselves and then dying.

The botanists simply explain autumn’s colors without using any imagination at all, by saying the shorter days signal the trees to cut off the water supply to the leaves, and the changing of leaf color is due to the carotenoid in the leaf. It seems that the leaf color is there all the time but hidden by the chlorophyll. The yellow and orange pigments in fall leaves are known as carotenoids. These carotenoids give the characteristic colors to pumpkins, carrots, corn, tomatoes, canaries, flamingos, salmon, lobster, shrimp, and daffodils.

Each fall the leaves of sugar and striped maples, hickories, beeches, birches and tulip poplars will turn a brilliant yellow color. For many sugar maples, the yellow soon gives way to a fiery orange, especially in those leaves that receive the most sunlight. After the chlorophyll fades, the leaf color changes.

On clear, warm and sunny days, with the night time temperature dropping to 45 degrees but staying above freezing, the chlorophyll disappears. Usually, one can identify a tree by its fall color, such as the beech and ash leaves, a purplish bronze; Norway maple leaves, a yellow; sugar maple leaves, a red; aspen leaves, a shimmering gold and white oak leaves, a purplish brown.

There could be a combination of colors on one single tree. For example, a single maple tree can have leaves of red, yellow and orange. The red leaves are produced by the brilliant sunlight; the yellow leaves appear on the shaded side of the tree and the orange are a combination of the yellow and the red showing through the same leaf. An early hard frost kills the leaves and prevents the trees from producing their brilliant colors.

It was believed by the Native Americans, that the leaves changed colors after the Spirit Bear, in the star constellation Ursa Major, was killed by three Spirit Indian Hunters. Throughout the year, these three Spirit Indian Hunters stalked the Spirit bear across the summer sky, and as fall approached, they caught and killed the bear. The blood from the bear dripped from the sky and fell on the leaves, turning them red. As the bear meat cooked, the fat spattered out of the pot, staining some of the leaves yellow and brown.

On our next clear night, go out and examine the sky. You must first find the three Spirit Indian Hunters in the handle of the Big Dipper and then the Spirit bear, which is part of the dipper itself. The middle Indian (star), which appears in the handle, has a dog (Alcor) with him. Our Native Americans used this star as an eye test. If one were able to see, with the naked eye, the dog above the middle Indian, it was said he had good eyesight. For a young boy, this meant that he was old enough to start accompanying the older braves on hunting expeditions

Back when I was a kid, Jack Frost got the credit for coloring the leaves. He supposedly spent the fall nights, dashing from tree to tree, painting the leaves.

Through the years, I have told my children and grandchildren about the three Spirit Indian Hunters on the bear hunt. Afterwards, I gave them the eye test. Now, I have four great-grandchildren to tell the story about the changing of the leaves.

We have a mature, healthy Norway maple tree in our back yard. A mature Norway maple tree could have 200,000 leaves. During the 60 years of its life, our tree would have grown and shed 3,600 pounds of leaves, returning about 70% of their nutrients to the soil. When our grandchildren were small they enjoyed raking leaves; however, as they got older raking leaves became work. Now, I mulch most of our leaves.

I’m sure that many of us find fallen leaves a nuisance and perhaps complain while raking; however, these fallen leaves are a necessity for animals to make it through the winter months.

Next week, we’ll discuss what the birds and animals do with the leaves.

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