The Science Behind Colorful Fall Leaves

Terry Krautwurst explains the biology behind the majesty of the colorful fall leaves that we all enjoy, including the green machine, chlorophyl and photosynthesis.

| October/November 2002

Learn about the science that creates colorful fall leaves.

Each autumn here in the mountains of western North Carolina, a crisis strikes that is so dire local emergency shelters are opened to house the refugees. The crisis is called coming to see the colorful fall leaves and those refugees are the hapless travelers who find not only fall’s spectacular scenery but also a panorama of no-vacancy signs at the area’s motels, all packed solid as bushel baskets with countless other leaf-lookers.

This phenomenon is hardly limited to the woods that lead down the long, rumpled spines of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains. Wherever there are frosty nights and deciduous forests there are pilgrims who come to see the trees emerge from their summer-green chrysalis, the leaves of scarlet, orange, yellow, purple and bronze fluttering like day-old butterflies drying their wings.

By the thousands, from coast to coast and border to border, we mortals seek the high ground to get a better view. We line ridgetops and overlooks, posted like sentinels, gazing outward at — what?

We’re drawn by the colors, of course. But there’s a deeper power at work, too, an attraction as compelling and primal as our pull to the sea. In summer, our species flocks to the beaches. In autumn, it’s to the forests. In both places, we gain a sense of homecoming.

Maybe it’s because we humans acknowledge instinctively the forces that make our world possible. The sea is the embryonic fluid from which all life has sprung. And the leaves? Within each leaf lies not only the secret of autumn’s brilliant spectacle, but the secret of life itself.

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