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Why is New England's fall foliage so stunning? Take a hike through a forest to find out

A rainbow appears behind a line of trees as storm clouds pass over the East Hartford area Monday, Oct. 17, 2023.
Mark Mirko
/
Connecticut Public
A rainbow appears behind a line of trees as storm clouds pass over the East Hartford area Monday, Oct. 17, 2023.

New England in the fall is beautiful.

As autumn’s crisp chill fills the air, forests don a blanket of vibrant reds, oranges and yellows – seemingly preparing themselves against the upcoming harsh winter.

It’s a biological masterpiece, one fueled by innumerable tiny leaves combining to transform the landscape into a tapestry of natural artistry that attracts visitors worldwide.

I grew up in Connecticut, so I take the season for granted. But fall here really is special. And the question was recently presented to me: Why, exactly, is autumn in New England so vibrant?

To find out, I took a hike.

I ventured into a forest in northeastern Connecticut with two UConn tree experts. We met up at Horsebarn Hill, one of the best viewpoints in the state, surveying a rolling river valley showing off with fall colors.

We see oaks just starting to turn red. Nearby hickories provide a dash of yellow – and, of course, the maples are already stealing the show, even on a cloudy day.

Here’s what I found out:

Our trees are diverse

One reason the foliage is so good is simply due to the number of species we have.

“We have a very diverse hardwood forest in this part of New England,” said Bob Fahey, an associate professor and forest ecologist at UConn. “We have both species that are more southern species and also some of the more northern species.”

“In comparison to say, the Mid-Atlantic or other places that have lots of deciduous species, we have maples, which are just the best,” he said.

“We also have a number of species that have nice yellow foliage,” he said. “Birches and beech. If you go a little bit farther south from here, mostly what you have is oaks. And oaks can have good fall foliage colors, but there are a lot of times they don't and they don't last for as long.”

We have lots and lots of trees

The diversity of species provides a diversity of color, said Tom Worthley, an associate extension professor and a forester at UConn.

He asked me to remember the last time I flew over Connecticut. What did you see, he asked. Lots of trees, right?

“Most of the ground is covered by a tree canopy,” Worthley said, noting that some estimates put that tree canopy cover at around 75% of the land area of the whole state.

“Back where we were standing a few minutes ago, we had some cherry trees,” Worthley said, his eyes scanning the trees enveloping us. “There's a few remnant ash, there's some walnut around the edges here. And let's see, some hickory.”

A walnut tree towers over us – and there are even some white pines.

It’s that varied bioscape that sets New England forests apart.

“Even in my two-acre forest behind my house, I have 22 different species of tree, which is more than some regions of the northern part of the U.S.,” Fahey said.

Travel to the west, and what you’re likely to see are lots of evergreens and aspen trees.

“Not that there aren't others, there are plenty of others, but not in the same abundance and not in the same kind of mix that we have around here,” Worthley said.

Climate plays a role

Across New England are rolling hills with microclimates that can contribute to vibrant fall colors.

“You’ll see ... highly different color in different parts of the landscape, which has to do with temperature differences,” Fahey said.

Combine that with Connecticut’s mix of southern and northern species and the colors here might not be as exciting and bright as what you would see in Vermont and New Hampshire, Fahey said. But our foliage season can sometimes last a little bit longer.

One reason? Oaks.

“We have so much more of that oak component,” Fahey said. “The oaks will hold their leaves until the end of October.”

Moisture, temperature and the amount of daylight all contribute to how long it takes for a tree to shed its leaves. And, for each species, the calculation is different.

“A tree makes an economic decision,” Worthley said. “It decides, ‘Well, it's costing more in energy to keep these leaves going than what they're producing for me and so it's time to shut them off.’”

Why do leaves fall anyway?

It’s when leaves are green that the most important work is happening, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and giving us oxygen.

And for that green color, we can thank the pigment chlorophyll.

“The color that's in the leaves – is always there from the time the leaf is grown,” Worthley said.

“As the growing season fades, the chlorophyll disappears,” he said.

Then the other colors in the leaf can begin to show off.

Pigments like anthocyanins (reds and purples) and carotenoids (yellows and oranges) peek out, tiny threads in an autumnal blanket transforming New England’s green forests into a richly colored landscape.

But why does the chlorophyll fade in the first place? It all comes down to nitrogen.

“It uses a lot of nitrogen to produce chlorophyll,” Fahey said. “Trees want to hold onto that nitrogen.”

So, he says, trees will absorb the nitrogen before they let the leaves fall on the ground.

“Nitrogen is generally the most limiting macronutrient in forests,” Fahey said. “It's the hardest thing for trees to get.”

And while trees can use their roots to absorb nitrogen left in the leaves that do fall, other plants can get at that valuable resource, too.

So it’s better for a tree to keep those nutrients in house before offering a free buffet to nearby competitors.

Will climate change affect fall colors?

Fall Foliage at Horsebarn Hill in Mansfield, Connecticut.
Ayannah Brown
/
Connecticut Public
Fall Foliage at Horsebarn Hill in Mansfield, Connecticut.

This summer was extremely wet, but recent summers in parts of the region have been marked by drought and extreme dryness.

That ping-pong of moisture and temperature extremes can stress forests, Fahey said.

“All of these fluctuations in weather that are associated with global climate change do have a strong impact on trees,” Fahey said. “On the survival of trees, but also on the health of trees, which has a big effect on how colorful those trees are in the fall.”

And because we don’t know exactly what’s going to come with the changes in the climate, we should be hedging our bets, Worthley said.

“The diversity of the forest, from a species standpoint, gives us a more potentially resilient forest,” he said.

But in addition to species diversity, forests need structural diversity – meaning trees of different sizes and shapes – as well as age-class diversity.

“We need young trees. We need old trees. We need trees in between. Because everything changes,” Worthley said. “The more diversity that we can have, the more resilient the forest will be to whatever changes come our way.”

Places to go leaf-peeping in CT

Here’s just a selection of the many spots to go leaf-peeping in Connecticut.

Horsebarn Hill, Mansfield, Connecticut
With a stunning view of the Fenton River Valley, this spot is also near the UConn Dairy Bar. Appreciate the beauty of New England with some ice cream!

To get there: Head out to the UConn Storrs campus. Turn onto Horsebarn Hill Road from Route 195 at the top of the hill by a large red barn. Drive down a few hundred feet to an interaction with the road on the right, parking is alongside the road.

Pachaug State Forest, Voluntown – Mt. Misery Overlook
Despite the name, Mt. Misery contains roads and hiking trails to facilitate your leaf peeping.

To get there: from Voluntown take Route 49N (six miles) to the forest’s entrance on the left. Go west two miles and bear left at forks to the parking area. Take the woods access road on the left to overlook.

Talcott Mountain State Park, Simsbury – Heublein Tower
A hallmark of autumn in Connecticut, the rolling hills visible from the recently reopened Heublein Tower provide a stunning 360-degree panorama of fall views.

To get there: From Bloomfield, take Route 185W (three miles) to the entrance sign on the left. Park along the road near the trailhead. Hike to ridge, then left to the restored Heublein tower. View from the tower is over the Farmington River Valley.

Fall leaf-peeping driving maps are also offered by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Up for a drive? Here are some other New England leaf-peeping spots

Acadia National Park, Maine
Drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point in the park, to see impressive views of the coastal and island landscape, or hop in your car and tour the state more broadly, enjoying one of the oldest scenic byway programs in the country.

Stowe, Vermont
Situated at the base of Vermont's highest peak, Stowe provides quintessential rolling terrain perfect for viewing New England's blazing fall colors. Check out this guide to scenic drives and a listing of sites to visit, including a chart breaking out the timing of "peak" fall colors.

White Mountains, New Hampshire
A scenic drive through the White Mountains provides beautiful views of fall color. State officials recommend traveling along the Kancamagus Highway (Route 112) between North Conway and Lincoln. From there, head north to Franconia Notch and Crawford Notch state parks, where vistas provide impressive views.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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