FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — If you’ve been out and about around the area lately, you may have noticed that some trees and plants have already begun to change colors. We haven’t even made it to fall yet, the first day of fall isn’t until September 23rd this year. How do our leaves change color and why is it happening early for some trees?

Creating the fall color scheme

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, there are three factors that play a role in both when and how our trees change colors. We’ll talk about each one and how they are all interconnected in the process.

The largest factor in this phenomenon is how long our nighttime period is. Right now, our days are slowly growing shorter and our nights are growing longer. This creates a problem, as well all know that plants need sunlight in order to grow and thrive. The leaves on our trees are no exception to that! Inside a tree leaf is something called chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is responsible for using sunlight to create “food” for the leaf in a process called Photosynthesis. Additionally, it gives our trees and plants the vibrant green color we see every spring and summer. As daylight grows shorter, the chlorophyll no longer has the ample amount of sunlight that it needs to keep producing “food” for the leaf or to maintain that green color. As a result, it breaks down. This is when other chemicals within the leaf begin to surface. The chemicals/pigments create the vibrant colors that we know and love so well in autumn:

  • Xanthophyll – Creates shades of yellow
  • Carotene – Creates shades of orange
  • Anthocyanin – Creates shades of red

We can’t leave weather out of the picture, as conditions leading up to fall also impact how vibrant our fall foliage will be.

The best weather “recipe” for a brilliant fall, according to USDA’s Forest service, begins with a warm and wet spring season. This is followed by favorable summer conditions. Summertime droughts play a part in the equation, as a late, severe summer drought can push back the appearance of fall colors. Lastly, we would want to see warm fall days full of sunshine and cool overnight hours.

Seeing autumn colors long before the season

Tree species is the biggest factor in why we see some trees changing colors well-ahead of all the rest. For example, oak trees tend to change colors very late in the season and hold their leaves for longer.

Another factor is our latitude! Latitude refers to how far north or south of the equator we are here on the planet. Typically, higher latitudes see fall foliage far before lower latitudes do, meaning that the northern portion of the United States sees fall colors long before the southern portion does.

Adding in all of these factors, we could see a wide variety of colors this fall. And, fall foliage colors will never be quite the same from year to year! Enjoy the colors if you’re already seeing them in your neighborhood!